American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
For a movie about chess—a game in which strategy, smarts and staying a step ahead of your opponent are crucial—"Life of a King" is awfully formulaic and predictable. Based on the true story of ex-con-turned-youth-mentor Eugene Brown, director and co-writer Jake Goldberger's drama is earnest to a fault and hits all the inspiring notes you'd expect. Brown's story is a good one, though, and solid performances—especially from star Cuba Gooding Jr.—elevate the film slightly above the familiar trappings of its genre.
Actually, "Life of a King" is more of a mixture of two genres: It has the uplift of a "Stand and Deliver" or a "Dangerous Minds," in which tough kids meet even tougher teachers, combined with every underdog sports film you've ever seen, particularly "The Karate Kid." You know exactly what you're getting with either of these experiences, so what matters is innovation in terms of aesthetics or structure or dialogue. Goldberg's film, however, is rather straightforward and unremarkable on all these fronts.
But Gooding has tamped down his signature swagger—the boisterous energy that's been a part of his persona since his Oscar-winning "Jerry Maguire" performance—to play Brown, who spent 18 years in prison for bank robbery. When we first see him, he's playing chess through the bars of his cell with the lifer next door (a sadly underused Dennis Haysbert). A lifetime of mistakes has beaten Brown down, and there's a sadness in his eyes, an apprehension to his demeanor.
Once he's released, Brown returns to his Washington D.C. neighborhood, where the former criminal now finds it hard to earn an honest living. His old protégé Perry (Richard T. Jones), who now runs the streets himself, offers Brown the chance to start making quick money again. Instead, Brown lies on his resume about being a convicted felon and lands a job as a janitor at the local high school. (LisaGay Hamilton has a no-nonsense dignity as the principal who hires him.)