In Cinemas

King Richard – Will Smith aces it in crowd-pleasing tennis biopic

The actor gives his best performance in over a decade as the irrepressible but overbearing father of the Williams sisters

Given that, in the late ‘90s and most of the noughties, Will Smith rivalled Toms Cruise and Hanks for the title of quintessential American movie star, he’s had a strangely lumpy career over the last decade, languishing in below-par nonsense like Bright, Collateral Beauty, and After Earth. Thankfully, this streak ends with King Richard and it does so with real style. This is Smith’s big Oscar push, a performance that combines genuine craft with the million-watt star power that’s always made him such a joy to watch.

Smith plays Richard Williams, father to the all-time tennis greats Venus and Serena, in a straight-laced but immensely satisfying crowdpleaser of a biopic. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and writer Zach Baylin open in ‘80s Compton, with Richard training Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) amidst limited local resources. His belief in the inevitability of their success is absolute, and this confidence translates to an irrepressible drive, eventually landing his daughters world-renowned coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), despite obstacles both of financing and racially-motivated snobbery.

Smith is on his best form in probably 15 years as Richard, a man who has internalised decades of failure and dissatisfaction even as he drives hopefully forward for his kids. The weight of the disappointments and miseries affects him down to his bones, his gait a listless shuffle until Venus’s success really starts picking up. It might seem like an odd choice to focus on Richard rather than either of his daughters, but Smith makes the decision worthwhile, and the fact that Venus and Serena produced the film suggests that is the story they wanted to see told.

On the other hand, this family involvement can make King Richard occasionally feel a bit too “pre-approved,” glossing over some of Richard’s indiscretions in favour of something more feelgood. That’s not to say that Richard is flawless though, and Smith is just as good at being overbearing and irritating as he is when he goes into adorably passionate dad and coach mode. He builds a complete picture of a father who knows how much work a Black family has to do to be celebrated.

Aunjanue Ellis is also great as Williams matriarch Brandi, while Bernthal is tremendous in a more broadly comedic role than he’s often given. King Richard, while often sticking to the traditional “inspirational sports biopic” script, can be very funny, especially when the Williams family visit posh country clubs – there’s some great day player casting here, finding the most sour-faced white people in California.

Though there’s not much to surprise as we approach the finale – this is a glossy sports movie after all – it’s pulled off with such heart and good humour that the predictability can even become a strength; it’s undeniably stirring when the music swells and those dramatic final points are won. King Richard is Oscar-season biography done right, funny and heartwarming, all revolving around a bona fide star performance from one of America’s most charismatic actors.

King Richard was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 19 November.

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