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From L to R: Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Kyrie Irving on the set of UNCLE DREW. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Movie Review: ‘Uncle Drew’

Six years after his initial appearance in the Pepsi Max advertisements, the fictitious street basketball legend Uncle Drew (Boston Celtic NBA star Kyrie Irving) hits the big screen as he rallies his former teammates to join him at a tournament at Rucker Park in Harlem, New York. Local coach/talent scout Dax (Lil Rel Howery) leads this team after his long-time rival Mookie (Nick Kroll) steals Dax’s previous team lead by Casper (Orlando Magic NBA star Aaron Gordon).

Director Charles Stone III (Drumline, Mr. 3000) and screenwriter Jay Longino (Skiptrace) keep the story moving with some familiar urban neighborhood scenarios and fun road trip encounters that are anchored by the “against-all-odds” comeback story of these elderly athletes who love the game of basketball. Their love becomes evident in the beginning sequence where their basketball peers and former competitors discuss their past achievements and their lasting impact.

Filmmakers quickly establish Dax’s background, which helps filmmakers insert these basketball legends into his life as they challenge, enrich, and inspire everyone they come in contact with. Drew still has some unresolved issues with his former teammates as his expanded ambassador role between generations of players serves as his main motivation.

This positive progress opens up the opportunity for Drew to help “youngblood” Dax with his important personal dilemma as Irving balances the drama and comedy well. He even adds his musical talents on the song “Ridiculous” featuring LunchMoney Lewis.

Drew’s life lessons and words of wisdom seem less heavy handed since the plot backs them up with intentional action and impressive basketball play. Drew and his team don’t just assume respect because of their elder status; they work for it and earn it. Drew dishes out important lessons to younger players on the court, but the competition between young and old (on and off the court) never boils over. By the end, this team’s spirit can be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone.

From L to R: Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Kyrie Irving on the set of UNCLE DREW. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Drew’s team are well-cast former NBA stars who use their eclectic talents and personalities  to entertain on many levels. Whie Drew’s “uncle” title refers to his extended interactions in the basketball community, Boots (Nate Robinson) and Preacher (Chris Webber) have the most notable family connections. Boots’ granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash) supports this new adventure while Preacher’s wife Betty Lou (WNBA star Lisa Leslie) needs more convincing.

Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal) takes a break from teaching young students at his martial-arts school while Lights (Reggie Miller) works on his vision issues as the team slowly gets their groove back. The charismatic O’Neal enhances this enjoyable experience with his physical talents and comedic timing. Miller provides quiet stability to this group as his eventual transformation makes him more than just a gimmicky character where filmmakers might manipulate audience into an emotional connection with him. Every character connection occurs naturally as filmmakers vary the familiar end scenarios at the end.

Rising star Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip) continues building her appeal and talent as Jess, a local woman with a sharp interest in Dax’s role in the tournament. J.B. Smoove (Curb Your Enthusiasm series, Barbershop: The Next Cut) and Mike Epps (All About the Benjamins, Talk to Me) also star as Angelo and Louis who are also well informed and involved in neighborhood events.

The one-hour and 43-minute plot has some predictable melodrama and situational comedy, but it’s the rapid-fire references that light up this basketball comedy. For example, during an important game Uncle Drew reminds Preacher that they have no more timeouts, which references when The Michigan Wolverines didn’t have timeouts during the 1993 NCAA championship and Webber snafu hurt their chance to win. Audiences will likely connect that reference with J.R. Smith’s recent mistake that cost the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals.

The endless cameos also entertain and delight basketball fans. Dikembe Mutombo and Jerry West get some great moments as they add to Drew’s legendary status during the beginning documentary-style sequences. Bill Walton, George Gervin, Steve Nash, Rick Barry, David Robinson, Earl Monroe, Pee Wee Kirkland, John Calipari, and Chris Mullin also have great spots.

LilRel Howery as “Dax” in UNCLE DREW. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Songs by Khalid, Wiz Khalifa, Grace, G-Eazy, A$AP Ferg, and French Montana & Remy Ma keep heartbeats pumping along with the impressive gameplay. The climax clinches a solid overall story that keeps a good handle on the audience whether on or off the courts.

Uncle Drew comes recommended with a few reservations (**1/2 out of four stars) as a broad comedy that entertains while hitting important touchstones in sports culture, ageism, and the fear of failure. It’s a good-hearted comedy without being too heavy-handed or succumbing to commercialism. Product placements are there, but thankfully do not distract audiences from the overall positive messages. Rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language and brief nudity. Be sure to catch the bonus footage and bloopers during the ending credits.

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