KING RICHARD is directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. The film stars Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, and Jon Bernthal.
Richard Williams resides in Compton, California with his wife and their daughters, including Venus and Serena, who he intends to turn into tennis-playing professionals with a plan he wrote up before they were born. Williams drives his daughters hard with nonstop training drills, rain or shine, going out of his way to get word out to various coaches and professional agencies who eventually take an interest in the tennis-playing prodigies he may have on his hands. But even after securing the guidance and assistance of professionals to aid his daughters on the path to success, Williams' controversial decisions and constant interferences become a thorn in the side of his daughters and their coaches. Will Williams' plan for success for his daughters pay off?
You don't have to be a sports fan to know who Venus and Serena Williams are; they're arguably the most famous athletes in the world today, and largely have been since becoming tennis professionals. It's unsurprising that their story has become the subject of a feature film, which surprisingly instead chooses to focus on their lives from the perspective of their hard-driving and controversial father who ushered them into the sport in the first place. KING RICHARD is a revelation with an Oscar-worthy performance from Will Smith who gives this figure the three-dimensional portrayal deserved. The movie is also surprisingly well paced despite a nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, featuring an interesting premise, relatable characters, and fantastic supporting cast.
There aren't enough good things that can be said about Will Smith's portrayal of Richard Williams in KING RICHARD. While Smith these days is certainly a household name and has been for decades, he continues to impress with his range as an actor. I won't deny that KING RICHARD doesn't cover every single detail of Richard Williams' life (that would've been impossible in a single film), but what's here works. At times, Smith becomes so engrossed in the role and becoming this man that I had to remind myself what actor I was watching! This is the very definition of an Oscar-worthy performance. Many reviews and remarks on the internet have criticized his role here, calling it "Oscar bait." But when the movie and the leading man's performance are this solid, does anyone really care? It's tough to create a role where I simultaneously root for and loathe the character, but Smith's take on Richard Williams does the job and then some.
Other performances in the film are still solid, even if Smith's leading man role does somewhat overshadow them and steal their thunder. Some of the standout parts include Aunjanue Ellis as Richard's wife and the mother to his children, a hard-headed woman who isn't afraid to put her husband in his place, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as young Venus and Serena, and Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, who becomes a coach to the girls while simultaneously having to contend with Richard's disagreement. KING RICHARD has an all-star cast, and it shows in every single minute of this movie.
The movie also does a solid job painting a desolate picture of the streets of Compton, showing the harsh conditions in which Venus and Serena not only had to train in tennis, but also live their everyday lives. A major highlight is seeing Richard's run-ins with gang members who harass his daughters and physically assault him, only to eventually win over their respect despite their past animosity. The film is equally solid at showing off major tennis competitions and arenas, creating an unsettling atmosphere for young Venus, though the Compton scenes are arguably its most effective moments in terms of world building.
A major triumph of KING RICHARD is, even if it sometimes feels like it comes dangerously close to the cliches of the conventional inspirational sports biopic, there's still enough here to keep the audience invested and interested. With a running time that approaches two-and-a-half hours that's no small feat. With so many films out there about baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, it's actually a refreshing change of pace to not only get a movie about the sport of tennis, but also one about two women who took the sport into a whole new era. Their story is certainly a Hollywood-worthy tale, and it's especially surprising to see the role their father played in getting them on the courts professionally. Seeing the real-life archival footage at the end of the movie of the actual people being portrayed by actors here shows just how well cast and acted the film is.
Seriously, any criticisms I have of KING RICHARD are minor. It would've been nice to know what year and location certain scenes take place; the film disappointingly lacks on-screen subtitles to deliver this information. At times, the choices of insert songs are a bit misleading and make this even more difficult to discern (for example, hearing an early-mid 80s hit song by Journey in a scene that's clearly supposed to be set in the later 80s/early 90s). At times the narrative does struggle a bit between Richard and Venus, at times not sure which one of them should be the main character, but none of these minor issues derailed my interest. As was previously stated, there are many (often unfavorable) episodes of Williams' past that this movie only hints at or glosses over, but I don't expect a single film to cover every single aspect of this. For what it is, the movie is a triumph and tells its story well.
KING RICHARD is a powerful and inspirational tale that rises above sports movie cliches. It stands strong as one of the best movies of 2021 thanks to fantastic pacing, direction, casting, and Will Smith's Oscar-worthy performance as Richard Williams. Audiences won't be disappointed in what they see here.