“Earnest” and “predictable” are two adjectives that describe Life of a King, a feel-good flick about an ex-con who teaches aimless inner-city teenagers about strength through chess. But considering some of star Cuba Gooding Jr.’s output over the past few years, those two words represent a major improvement.
Gooding plays Eugene Brown, fresh from prison and back on the streets of D.C. after serving 17 years for armed robbery. The one good thing he brings with him from life behind bars is a love of chess, taught to him by another inmate, Searcy (Dennis Haysbert). This skill comes in handy when, as a janitor for a high school in an economically depressed area, he’s pressed into duty to take charge of the unruly kids in detention after a harassed teacher suddenly quits.
Though he’s challenged by lead troublemaker and dope dealer Clifton (Carlton Byrd), he begins to get through to some of the others, including two teetering between redemption and hopelessness, Peanut (Kevin Hendricks) and Tahime (Malcolm M. Mays). He nurtures this spark of intellectual curiosity by teaching them chess, and eventually they get good enough to compete in local matches.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of Eugene trying to make amends with his estranged adult children, neither of whom wants to see him.
As written and directed by Jake Goldberger ( Don McKay), Life of a King — which is based on the true story of the Big Chair Chess Club — has a TV-movie-of-the-week feel. It recycles every students-in-trouble movie, from Lean on Me to Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver. Gooding gives a strong performance, but viewers might be better off seeking out the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle, which focuses on the championship chess team at an inner-city New York middle school. Sometimes real reality checkmates the fictionalized variety.
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