This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
While in Poland last July, I learned of a film called "Czarodziej z Harlemu," or "Magician From Harlem." Its origins were Polish, but its plot was pure Hollywood: A foreign basketball team imports an African-American man named Abraham Lincoln to help them win a championship. Wackiness ensues, or so I'm told. The visions of "Magical Negro" dancing in my head kept me from seeking out "Magician From Harlem," but its plot was the first thing I thought of when I heard about "The Iran Job." The description sounds like a real-life fish-out-of-water tale crossed with a sports movie. But the film wants to be more than that, and I'm on the fence about how well it succeeds.
"The Iran Job" follows Kevin Sheppard, a St. Croix native who is recruited by an Iranian basketball team to help lead them to the playoffs. I don't believe the team, A.S. Shiraz, hired Sheppard because of his skin color, but I did wonder if he had been the only candidate who accepted. It's 2008, and as Sheppard's relatives point out, Iran isn't the safest place for Americans to be. "The Iran Job" never explicitly describes the recruiting process, but it clearly spells out the grounds for termination: If A.S. Shiraz doesn't make the playoffs, Sheppard fouls out of the league.
I confess to being a sucker for sports movies, the ones with the "Big Game" at the end. "The Iran Job" has all the requisite elements of that cinematic subgenre, but strives for something deeper. A.S. Shiraz is the newest edition to the Iranian Basketball Super League, a promotion of sorts, so all eyes are on them to make history by becoming the first team to reach the playoffs in their first year. Iranian basketball rules allow for each team to recruit two foreign players from any country willing to send them. Sheppard is joined by a Serbian he calls Z; the two room together and are the most experienced members of the team.
The rest of the team is young and untrained. After their first practice session, Sheppard is stunned by their skill set, or lack thereof. "That was the worst [expletive] I've ever seen," he tells the camera. The coach makes him team captain, but Sheppard soon realizes that the fans share his fired-up enthusiasm more than his teammates. Sheppard's tenacity would play better in the league he failed to make after graduating Jacksonville University: the NBA. But here, "You get angry at them, and they play worse," the coach basically tells him. Sheppard changes his captain's plan of attack.