After a seventeen-year hiatus, actor John Leguizamo returns to the director’s chair for Critical Thinking from Vertical Entertainment. Set in Miami’s Dade County in the year 1998 and based on a true story, Critical Thinking tells the story five young men from the toughest underserved ghetto in Miami. We follow the group as they fight their way into the National Chess Championship under their inspirational teacher’s guidance.
In addition to directing duties, Leguizamo portrays the boy’s teacher Mario Martinez & chess coach, who sees more in the boys than the school does. The boys are made up of the usual character tropes from inspirational films. There’s talented player Sedrick (Corwin Tuggles) who has to deal with a stern father (Michael Kenneth Williams), a competent chess player. The ill-tempered Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) wants to make quick money and doesn’t really take chess seriously. Class clown Rodleay (Angel Bismark Curiel), who is always ready with a joke. And the outsider Gil (Will Hochman) is reluctant to join the team after a past altercation with Sedrick. Finally, we have the newcomer Marcel (Jeffrey Batista) who is the team’s secret weapon,
Naturally, we need to have a villain of sorts who takes forever to come around and support the team, and that’s school Principal Mrs. Kestel (Rachel Bay Jones). One of the things I liked about the film is the boys already display some talent when we meet them. Also, they already have a respect for Mr. T., their teacher. There aren’t any moments where the teacher has to win over the students with fancy tricks or seem cool. I also like the angle of showing Mr. T. teaching other students chess. In addition to the five core young men, we some young women in his class, all learning just how practical chess can be in everyday life situations.
While the film is based on a true story, screenwriter Dito Montel falls into the typical clichés that inspirational sports films like this do. However, when you have a strong cast, the tropes are forgivable. I’ve been a fan of John Leguizamo since 1991’s Hangin’ with the Homeboys, and he leads the cast of young actors with a naturalistic mentor’s flair. Angel Bismark Curiel provides many funny moments while Corwin Tuggles shines in the film’s more serious moments involving his father, Mr. Roundtree (Michael Kenneth Williams).
Regarding the direction, I found Leguizamo’s direction of the film sufficient. He keeps the plot moving along at a quick pace. Also, he showcases the intensity of chess and just how mental the game truly is. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait for another decade-plus for Leguizamo to step into the director’s chair/
For the most part, I enjoyed Critical Thinking. However, some viewers may find fault with two unresolved plot points involving Sedrick (Corwin Tuggles). In contrast, the other involves Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). I don’t find fault with Leguizamo’s direction; however, a brief scene in the script could’ve quickly wrapped up both plot points.
Fans of chess and inspirational movies will find much to enjoy in Critical Thinking. Yes, the plot is routine, and we know exactly where the film is going to go. However, as Bruce Lee once said, “If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the tradition, the shadow — you are not understanding yourself.” In times like this, there’s nothing wrong with a routine film.
Final Grade: B-
Critical Thinking is available on all streaming platforms today, September 4th.