“Critical Thinking” is one of those up-from-the-streets high-school competition movies where just mentioning the true story it’s based on kind of gives the game away. Set in 1998, it’s about the five chess wizards from Miami Jackson High who became the first inner-city chess team to win the National Championship. Boom! But, of course, it’s how they got there that matters, and even if this movie weren’t based on a true story, you’d know more or less know where it’s going. “Critical Thinking” has some appealing young actors, and it’s been directed, by John Leguizamo (who costars as the film’s tough-saint teacher), in a way that gives them the space to clown around and then get serious.
Leguizamo plays Mario Martinez, who teaches an elective class in chess at Miami Jackson, where his students call him “Mr. T.” They’re a rowdy, bellicose, street-smart bunch, hard to control in class, so at first we think we’re seeing one of those movies, like “Stand and Deliver” or “To Sir, with Love,” about a captivatingly square gadfly instructor who shows a bunch of underprivileged kids how to transcend the expectations (or lack thereof) that have been thrust upon them.
In a way, “Critical Thinking” is one of those movies, though with a crucial caveat: The basic training — the intellectual whipping into shape — has all happened before the drama even starts. Martinez, in his thankless underpaid plaid-shirts-off-the-rack way, is beloved by his students, and he has taught them well; they’re chess players who’ve got the game in their blood. (It’s the only thing that gets them to settle down.) Leguizamo, who spent a number of his early one-man stage shows sketching in (often quite brilliantly) the lives of young people from a similar background, knows how to create scenes that bubble with spontaneity. And he himself plays Martinez with an effusive, slightly weary middle-aged demeanor that’s touching, because what he nails is the unabashed corniness of certain great high-school teachers — their willingness to put on a show for their kids, to turn the life of the mind into energized nerd theater.
At one point, using the magnetic chess board at the front of the class, he plays out a chess match authored (and recorded) by Paul Morphy in 1858, and he makes it sound as exciting as something on Roblox. He employs silly accents (Southern, French, Austrian) and puts on wigs and fake beards to enact the game, and he draws the kids into it, challenging them in his geek-with-cool-slang way (“Why is it a wack move, Sedrick? Don’t just talk to me, man, show me!”).
It’s one of the only scenes where we actually witness the mechanics of chess, and while that’s always a challenge for a chess drama (there’s only so much it can lure the lay audience into the heady intricacies of the game), I wish the students’ connection with chess were less of a given, and a little less abstract. Watching “Critical Thinking,” you’d never even know that the art of chess is rooted in thinking several moves ahead. Yet Leguizamo stages the matches with percussive power, the kids pounding their time clocks even as their eyes burrow into the board like lasers.
Much of the film’s appeal lies in the way it revels in chess as a pure symbol of leveling the playing field of opportunity. As Mr. T explains, chess is “the great equalizer.” It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, what Ivy League college or prison you’re in: The elemental nature of the game shears away everything but intellectual ability. So in a drama like “Critical Thinking,” where five students (four Latinx and one African-American) bust out of a high school with limited resources to attend a series of tournaments, there’s a democracy-in-action, anyone-can-win-in-America spirit.
The actors are terrific; the roles, as written, less so. Leguizamo is working from a script, by Dito Montiel, that walks the line between lived-in experience and overboiled cliché. Sedrick is played by Corwin Tuggles, who has a great pensive face, and he lends conviction to the character’s struggles at home. But it still feels like a contrivance that his father (Michael Kenneth Williams), an angry curmudgeon who treats his son’s chess victories as if they were beneath contempt, is also…the guy who plays chess with him every day! The other pivotal character is the canny hothead Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr,.), who begins to moonlight as a drug dealer, and though it’s not that we don’t buy it, it plays out like one of those obligatory flirtation-with-delinquency subplots from the 1980s.
There’s also a newly arrived immigrant from Cuba who joins the class — a sleek prodigy named Marcel (Jeffrey Batista), who can play (and win) four simultaneous games with his eyes closed. Always good to have someone like that on your team! As likable an actor as Leguizamo is, “Critical Thinking” never generates the teacher/student face-off intensity that “Stand and Deliver” did. The issue of how the team members fund their trips, with Martinez having to win over a skeptical principal (Rachel Bay Jones), creates some tension along the sidelines, yet once these kids start to win their tournaments it seems like they can do no wrong. The picture is pleasant enough, but watching it you’re always one or two moves ahead.
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