As an avid NBA fan, it’s my film critic mandate to engulf any basketball film that hits release… and I mean any (seriously, how many other Netflix users watched Amature back in 2018?). This mantra has driven me towards a few slam dunk-worthy films (Love and Basketball and Uncut Gems), along with a few woeful air-ball stinkers (Rebound and Thunderstruck). The latest addition to the subgenre Blackjack: The Jackie Ryan Story takes a refreshingly low-key approach to the high-flying sport. Despite an underdog earnestness, Danny Abeckaser’s film never escapes the grasp of simplistic narrative-handholding.
Blackjack follows the story of hot-tempered Brooklyn native and streetball legend Jackie Ryan (Greg Finley). Stuck in a personal crossroads, Jackie listlessly spends his days partying with his pal Marty (James Madio) while vying over his former crush Jenny (Ashley Greene). When Jackie is called for a tryout with the Brooklyn Nets, he tirelessly builds towards personal and professional redemption.
As a craftsman, Abeckaser’s full-hearted adoration towards his subject-matter radiates throughout. He and screenwriter Antonio Macia define their film through its rustic Brooklyn setting, employing gritty framing and wisecracking barbs that crackle with a naturalistic light (every character is a cartoon-y ball-buster, which feels surprisingly tailor-made for the hard-nosed setting). This potent sense of place imbues the sports movie formula with much-needed personality onscreen, as the duo allows their personal stomping ground to breathe with raw authenticity.
Blackjack is also aided by its assured cast. Greg Finley brings Jackie Ryan to life with swaggering bravado, tapping into the streetballers cocky attitude while empathetically examining Ryan’s inner-demons. James Madio has a blast playing into Marty’s smart-guy persona, while Ashley Greene makes for a personable presence as a former basketball standout. Perhaps the standout of the bunch is David Arquette, who elevates Jackie’s tough, but fair father into a fairly complex role despite limited screentime.
There are charming elements on display throughout, but they can’t compensate for Blackjack’s notable limitations. Abeckaser’s visceral sensibility leaves something to be desired, combing poorly-lit settings and sloppy edits to leave an unfinished feeling. When it comes to the tightly-contested basketball games, Abeckaser does an able job displaying the free-flowing movements with a steady hand. However, the lack of intensity hurts these scenes severely, as viewers are met with actors haphazardly speed-walking through their iconic skill moves. For a movie about a streetball legend, audiences rarely get to bask in the star’s awe-inspiring talents.
Blackjack also finds itself in a stark identity crisis. Macia’s script never decides if it wants to be an uplifting sports film or a personal drama, undercutting both identities in a clumsy attempt to make the two co-exist. This rise-and-fall story is screaming for raw intimacy, but the dramatic elements are handled with a skin-deep complexion. Even as Jackie descends towards a drunken stupor, his personal struggles are treated with a level of sanitation that mitigates the impact of his heroic comeback.
Blackjack: The Jackie Ryan Story serviceably tells its underdog story but can’t quite deliver on the film’s full picture of promise. Either way, I relish the chance to watch any new basketball film, and I am sure diehard NBA fans will get a level of enjoyment out of this.
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