Movie Review: Critical Thinking5th October 2020
Waiting a graceful seventeen years before directing his second feature film, John Leguizamo is back with the fast-paced action only he can promise. Critical Thinking follows a group of four kids and one unconventional teacher who nurtures them through the tough, gritty sport of National Chess Championships. You didn’t read that wrong, for his second directing project, Leguizamo has indeed chosen to work on a story concerning four tough kids from a rough ghetto in Miami who dream of hitting their stride on the checkered board. They do so under the guidance of their very own Mr. Miyagi, only rather than a master of the art form, Mario Martinez (Leguizamo) just seems to know a fair bit about chess history.
For a film about a chess club, Critical Thinking is pretty solid. Leguizamo is always a consistent draw, and with him helming the project as well as starring in it, it’s easy to see where his vision wants to take his audience. He brings a surprising enthusiasm and chemistry to the film; his ideals and consistencies are proudly worn for the entire projects running time. It’s just a shame that nothing much of interest can be drawn from its adaptation of this true story. Script is very much the issue here, one that doesn’t pool its characters together in any way that could be deemed interesting. They all feel very static, and although they interact with one another often, it feels very robotic and synthetic of natural conversion, it’s a shame too, since there’s clear dedication from a cast of fairly unknown actors.
It does fall to pieces rather soon; the issue of representation encroaches on the problems of chess. Leguizamo has such a strong message at his heart, but it’s fumbled inexplicably poorly, there are moments of real confidence and understanding found within the performances, but the script isn’t tight enough to showcase anything provocative or anything worth musing on. Well-meaned, constructive displays of dangerous lives in a Miami ghetto, fumbled entirely by a focus on these kids playing chess. Great swathes of dialogue all about the passionate love for chess, rather than anything we as an audience can consider to be engaged with the political and class issues that provide the foundation to Leguizamo’s direction.
Similar to that of The Way Back, but replacing the fast-paced action of shooting hoops on the court with the tantalising energy of moving a bishop to C7 and taking your opponent’s knight, Critical Thinking has to rely entirely on its performances. There’s simply no way the film will draw in a large audience, I can’t imagine there are many National Chess Championship fans out there, and those that do remain aren’t exactly clamouring for a rather mediocre biopic on their beloved game. Leguizamo tries desperately hard to make this one work, but it’s not fooling anyone. Poorly written, but well performed, it’s more frustrating than upsetting.