Back in 1989, an African-American actor made quite an impression playing a former slave turned military man whose bad attitude - which was based on past mistreatment - is fixed with the helpful advice of an older, more knowledgeable black man. The film was "Glory," the actor was Denzel Washington and he went on to win an Oscar for his superb performance.
Now, thirteen years later, Washington has stepped behind the camera to direct himself playing the older military character who helps the young and troubled one with a tormented past in "Antwone Fisher." Written by none other than the title's namesake and based on his real-life experiences, the film is solidly told and features the breakout performance of Derek Luke.
Marking his feature film debut, the former Sony Pictures gift shop employee and part-time actor (who's appeared in a few bit parts in several TV shows) may just follow his role model in receiving various accolades and nominations for his terrific and impressive performance.
At first, the film looks as if it's going to follow the standard, run-of-the-mill story arc where the troubled and brash young man eventually breaks under the wisdom of the older man's words. To a degree, it does, as Washington ("Training Day," "John Q") plays a Navy psychiatrist who eventually unearths what's troubling the young man and then helps him overcome that and other issues.
Like most such stories, the film then delves into those past events for the viewer to see. Yet, the way in which Fisher has fashioned his script - with some artistic license regarding the real events - brings a certain freshness to the proceedings that's palpable and manages to subdue the familiarity.
Having spent a great deal of time in front of the camera, Washington has no problem stepping behind it and seems entirely comfortable delivering a polished product that belies his greenness. While he never gets too fancy with the material, he delivers an engaging and well-told tale that decently balances the present day material with the occasional flashback sequences.
The latter come via various therapeutic sessions, and while no one will have any problems knowing when they're going to pop up, they present some of the film's more compelling and harrowing individual moments. During them, Novella Nelson ("A Perfect Murder," "Judy Berlin") plays the abusive foster mother with such venom that she's nothing short of believable and troubling playing the part.
Fisher and Washington nicely contrast such material with various lighter moments. Most of them revolve around the protagonist who's shy around women and in particular the object of his affection who's solidly played by Joy Bryant ("Showtime"). The initially awkward romantic chemistry between them is both fine and fun, and the two eventually set out on a detective mission of sorts where they attempt to find Antwone's family in order for him to find some closure with them and his past.
When they finally do, the film traverses a variety of emotions as the truth and its various players are finally revealed. Not all of it's exactly happy, but the cast and crew manage to hit the dual closure scenes out of the ballpark, thankfully without any of it feeling contrived or melodramatic.
What makes those moments and the rest of the film work so well, though, are the strong efforts of the cast and crew in getting us to care about the characters. While Washington's character might not be as fully explored or explained as one might like, the actor brings more than enough to the role to make it work and the scenes and chemistry between his and Luke's character are dead-on and terrific.
Despite the familiarity and what looks like a path toward third act maudlin sentimentality - that thankfully never materializes -- this is a completely engaging and well-told effort from both the first-time director and young actor, both of whom show promise of equally good or better things down the road in their new careers. "Antwone Fisher" rates as a 7 out of 10.