‘Life of a King’: Cuba Gooding Jr. makes a believably inspiring ex-con | 2½ stars

Updated: 2014-01-16T01:59:26Z

Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:41

“Life of a King” is a warm and likable “make a difference” melodrama about an ex-con who teaches inner city kids about how chess can change your life.

Like “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” it’s a reminder that Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Oscar was no fluke, even if he has had precious few roles over the decades to justify that opinion.

Gooding is Eugene Brown, who takes the advice of a fellow inmate, the Chess Man (Dennis Haysbert), to heart as he’s taking his leave of a D.C. penal institution where he has spent 17 years.

“Just keep your eye on the end game. … Take care of the king. Everything else follows.”

It’s a message Brown passes on to the kids stuck in detention in the failure factory known as Maud Alton High School, where Brown finds a job as a janitor and finds purpose in monitoring those unruly kids in the detention hall.

He shrugs off the tough kids’ “It’s a corny game” cracks and gets his back up just a little at “We ain’t gotta listen to no janitor.”

Brown takes on this mission, trying to win the hearts and minds of youths who might otherwise drift into drug-dealing jobs with Brown’s old running mate, Perry (Richard T. Jones). The thug life is so attractive, and all Brown can offer is an ancient board game where you learn to not make that one fatal mistake that can cost you the game, where “fighting your way out of a corner” is a metaphor for life itself.

In between classes, Brown has to learn to be there for the kids he left behind when he was first arrested, all those years ago.

Co-writer/director Jake Goldberger has turned this “true story” into an uplifting formula film with obstacles popping up, like clockwork, every so often in the script.

We can’t fret too much over what Brown does to support himself once the janitor job ends, over the lack of actual chess and chess instruction that supposedly turns these kids from newbies to champs, or Brown’s abrupt transformation from ex-con who’s been “Scared Straight” into a teacher demanding that these kids “Stand and Deliver.”

Yeah, it’s like that.

But Gooding brings just enough streetwise credibility to make Brown work. The kids are distinct and believably troubled, particularly Malcolm H. Mays as a promising convert who could go good or bad, and Kevin Hendricks as a true-believer student whose idealism Brown must live up to every day.

And Haysbert, in just a couple of scenes, brings a world-weary gravitas to the lifer known as the Chess Man. As predictable as everything that happens between his first and last scenes may be, Haysbert sells the idea of what the game means to him and how important mastering it should be to these kids.

“Only my mind gets out” of prison, he confesses, “every time I open a board.”

(At the AMC Studio 30.)

| Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune

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