John Leguizamo is an easily recognisable actor who has become known for his trademarks: fast-talking and a feisty attitude. From Casualties of War to Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, John Wick and Ice Age, Leguizamo has built his film career on sharp and funny supporting performances. He directed himself in the boxing drama Undefeated and returns to do so once again in the coming-of-age drama, Critical Thinking. Staying in the sporting arena, whatever your feelings on chess, Critical Thinking is centred on contest and strategy and loosely based on the true story of the Miami Jackson High School chess team’s road to the U.S. National Chess Championship.
There have been many coming-of-age dramas about students who achieve greatness and grow in character by learning and excelling at the chequered game of Kings and Queens. Queen of Katwe, Four Corners and Life of a King have all leveraged the game’s metaphorical extensions. Critical Thinking fits into this trend, leaning on some underdog sports drama plotting and storytelling devices. While predictable as a blend of Dangerous Minds, Life of a King and Spare Parts, there aren’t many filmgoers who can honestly say they’d prefer not to be moved by a triumph of the human spirit story.
The sports drama latches onto the inspirational teacher and diversity of Dangerous Minds, combining the motivation to help at-risk youth find meaning from Life of a King and drives it home with the feel good fun and formula of Spare Parts. While this ultimately adds up to a satisfying, stirring and crowdpleasing experience, this film does manage to distinguish itself from the subgenre’s fast food feel. While these glory stories can become a bit cloying and dull, Critical Thinking largely manages to overcome these cliches and setbacks.
“This isn’t a Jedi mind trick.”
Directed by and starring John Leguizamo, you can tell this is a passion project based on his charismatic and entertaining lead performance as the team’s teacher and mentor. In front of and behind camera, he’s found the perfect role as a teacher and mentor able to coach his actors to better performances by leading out front with one of his more subdued takes. Flanked by Rachel Bay Jones and Michael Kenneth Williams in small supporting roles, the bulk of the acting falls on Corwin C. Tuggles, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Angel Bismark Curiel, Jeffry Batista and Will Hochman with Leguizamo as Mr Martinez. Showcasing an up-and-coming cast, they’re energised by good writing and realistic characters creating a lively spirit.
Leguizamo is known for his energy and versatility, channeling quiet intensity into the chess games themselves as the team rise up in confidence and stature. Slamming chess pieces, checking clocks with force and emphasising speed of play, Critical Thinking is ironically not as cerebral as you’d expect and doesn’t require a good understanding of the game either. There’s fire to the performances, charm in their team dynamics and infectious spirit in their aspirations as they look beyond themselves.
Bolstered by a timely theme around reclaiming one’s own heritage and history, it’s much more than just an underdog tale with chess coming to represent the strategic decisions one is faced with on a day-to-day basis. Chiming in with some smart dialogue and relatable characters, the language is coarse but justifiably reflective of the classroom environment and flippant atmosphere. Nursing a subplot involving the dangerous neighbourhood and affects of crime, there are a number of layers to an otherwise straightforward retelling of a real-life underdog glory story. Critical Thinking may lean on a familiar structure but moves at a good pace, remaining entertaining and distinguishing itself through its thoughtful script and engaging performances.
The bottom line: Entertaining