[Screen It]

(2002) (Lil Bow Wow, Morris Chestnut) (PG)

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Comedy: After being given a pair of old tennis shoes that may have belonged to Michael Jordan, a young orphan suddenly becomes a basketball sensation and joins a pro team.
Calvin Cambridge (LIL BOW WOW) is a young teenage orphan who's been living at the Chesterfield Group Home Orphanage with his friends, including Murph (JONATHAN LIPNICKI) and Reg (BRENDA SONG), and other kids such as Ox (JESSE PLEMONS), the resident bully. Run by Stan Bittleman (CRISPIN GLOVER) and Sister Theresa (ANNE MEARA), the orphanage tries to find homes for the kids, but has a hard time with Calvin and the rest of the older ones.

As luck would have it, Calvin suddenly finds himself in possession of some old, donated tennis shoes that Sister Theresa believes belonged to a famous basketball player in the past. When Calvin spots the initials "MJ" inside them, he wonders if they possibly belonged to NBA star Michael Jordan. Calvin's luck continues when he happens to run into Coach Wagner (ROBERT FORSTER) of the Los Angeles Knights who invites him and his friends to a game.

It's there that Calvin's seat number is picked in a raffle and he's chosen to play in a brief exhibition match of one-on-one with Knights star Tracey Reynolds (MORRIS CHESTNUT). While Reynolds isn't crazy about participating in the publicity stunt arranged by team manager Frank Bernard (EUGENE LEVY), he and everyone else are shocked when Calvin beats him with various shots, including a slam dunk that's all the more amazing since Calvin is only four and a half feet tall.

Nevertheless, Frank and a reluctant Coach Wagner sign Calvin onto their team, and are happy when they suddenly start winning and filling seats. With Calvin partnered with Tracey while on the road, the two become something of an odd couple pairing, but Tracey eventually begins to warm up to having the boy around him. As they take the team closer to the playoffs, Calvin must then deal with his sudden fame, various people who want to undermine his success, and his continual hopes that someone will eventually adopt him.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Companies have long used spokespeople to pitch their products, and they've ranged from little known faces to famous celebrities, entertainers, politicians and sports figures. One of the more enduring and memorable campaigns featuring one of the latter were those "Be Like Mike" ads that Gatorade created featuring all sorts of people who wanted to attain that titular status.

The subject, of course, was none other than Michael Jordan, the NBA superstar who won many titles with the Chicago Bulls and appeared in slews of different campaigns for various companies, including Nike who even named one of their shoes after him. Jordan's stardom eventually propelled him into the movie biz with his appearance - as himself - in the half live-action, half animated feature, "Space Jam."

Although he's nowhere to be seen in the latest and appropriated titled film influenced by his fame, "Like Mike," his alleged shoes are present, while other NBA stars and a diminutive rap artist with an interesting name fill the void as role models for the picture's target audience.

As written by Michael Elliot (making his feature film debut) and Jordan Moffet ("Whispers: An Elephant's Tale") and directed by John Schultz ("Drive Me Crazy," "Bandwagon") the film follows any kid's dream of getting to live the life of their idol. It also dredges up the magical, superpower-imbuing element found in most any comic book series and films such as 1993's "Rookie of the Year" where a kid gets enhanced sports abilities that allow him to play with the pros.

In this case, rapper Lil Bow Wow (a.k.a. Shad Gregory Moss) plays an orphan who's given some old tennis shoes that may or may not have previously belonged to Mr. Jordan (they have the initials "MJ" in them). Before you can say "Holy cow, look at that kid play!" the four and a half foot character suddenly inherits Jordan's gravity-defying, contortionist moves, joins a flailing NBA team and takes them to the playoffs.

Much like the baseball-based "Rookie of the Year," this is obviously a fantasy aimed directly at kids who've dreamed of such a thing happening to them. On that level, it works, and the target audience clearly won't care that the resultant film obviously isn't a work of high art.

In fact, the rags to riches cum Cinderella sort of plot is about as formulaic and predictable as they come, with most every plot development being telegraphed or at least quite easy to guess. At times, the pacing is uneven, the editing a bit rough, and all of the various plot threads are wrapped up rather quickly - and somewhat chaotically - at the end. In addition, some of the material and performances are juvenile and/or exaggerated in nature, but that's somewhat to be expected from a kids film like this.

Despite all of that, what makes the film work and even come off as moderately entertaining - on its own level - is its good-natured sense, charm, and the presence of its young lead actor. Although his performance is occasionally a bit stilted and uneven, there's no denying that Lil Bow Wow ("All About the Benjamins") has a charming screen persona, no doubt helped by his previous experience making music videos. Considering the mixed track record of previous singers turned actors, I wasn't expecting much, but the rapper turns in a winning performance.

As his fellow orphans, Jonathan Lipnicki ("Stuart Little," "Jerry Maguire") and Brenda Song ("Leave it to Beaver") are okay but don't have a great deal of material with which to work, and that also holds true for Jesse Plemons ("All the Pretty Horses," "Varsity Blues") as the standard bully whose stereotypical behavior really masks a kid who's just frustrated with life.

Speaking of frustrations, that's what Morris Chestnut ("Two Can Play That Game," "The Best Man") gets to play - in a comic vein - for much of the first half of the film as his character goes through the expected notions of being paired with his young charge. Even so, he also delivers a mostly winning performance.

Robert Forster ("Human Nature," "Mulholland Drive") is decent as the head coach, Crispin Glover ("Charlie's Angels," the "Back to the Future" films) inhabits a predictable character with his usual neurotic mannerisms, but Eugene Levy ("Serendipity," the "American Pie" films) and Anne Meara ("Judy Berlin," "Heavyweights") are pretty much wasted in their roles that all but evaporate in the second half.

Finally, but also predictably, various real-life NBA stars make cameo appearances in the decently staged, on-court games. Alas, Mr. Jordan does not appear at the end to tell the protagonist that the magic isn't from the shoes, but rather comes from what's inside all of us (although that point is still made).

Nothing particularly special or memorable and certainly not for most adults without kids (due to its somewhat goofy nature and occasionally sloppy filmmaking), the film is not without its faults. Yet, it should manage to work its own form of magic over young (and even some older) viewers enough times to earn a passing grade. "Like Mike" rates as a 6 out of 10 on pure charm and a decent lead debut by its young star.

Reviewed June 18, 2002 / Posted July 3, 2002

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