- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

"Like Mike" may already be a period piece. The juvenile lead credited as Lil Bow Wow on the screen has changed his handle to simply Bow Wow.
Producers, hoping to take advantage of the predictable popularity of his movie debut in this cheerfully mediocre, preposterous sports-fantasy-tear-jerker about a runt who gets to star for a National Basketball Association franchise, may want to move fast. The star may become plain ole Dawg sometime around his 16th birthday, only a year down the road.
"Like Mike" a soft-soaping collaboration between 20th Century Fox and NBA Entertainment, clearly indifferent to the so-called integrity of the game hopes to sustain an obviously harebrained fictional plot. A 13-year-old Los Angeles orphan named Calvin Cambridge, portrayed by Young Master Wow (Bow to his friends?), a rapper demigod with the teeny-bopper segment of the population under any name, has acquired phenomenal court skills after lacing on a used pair of sneakers that may have been discarded by Michael Jordan. It's difficult, however, to envision the 4-foot-8 Calvin with Jordan-size feet at any age.
Jordan does not make a personal appearance in the movie. Several NBA players have been sporting enough to pretend that Calvin would be a handful in the heat of competition. He transforms the fanciful Los Angeles Knights into a contender team soon after taking his game public. Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Vince Carter and Gary Payton permit themselves to be outplayed facetiously at certain points.
Jordan is more like the institutional entities and brand names cited during the course of the movie: the Staples Center, Sheraton, Rite Aid, Allegra, room service. In deference to the on-surging Knights, I suppose, no one mentions the precise standing of the Los Angeles Lakers, the actual tenants at the Staples Center, although the existence of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher is acknowledged in one sequence.
If I read the movie's intentions correctly, the NBA hopes to become a clearinghouse for foster parents. I'm surprised that no one invokes a slogan such as "Leave No Calvin behind." In gratitude for the lad's amazing and inspirational play, the Knights certainly are expected to assume responsibility for his place of residence, the Chesterfield Group Home, which sounds more like a retirement haven for Chesterfield smokers.
The filmmakers use the orphanage's director, Stan Bittleman, played by Crispin Glover, as a whipping boy. They also mock a number of aspiring adoptive parents, protecting a vested interest in matching Calvin with the Knight who has to baby-sit him, Morris Chestnut as long-suffering Tracy Reynolds. What else can one conclude? The NBA clearly is considering a hostile takeover of the orphanage business for the good of the children.
Calvin has bosom buddies at the home: Jonathan Lipnicki, the youngster in "Jerry Maguire," as Murph, and Brenda Song as Reg. The most interesting resident is the designated bully, Jesse Plemons as Ox, who has the most interesting psychology and most forceful presence among the younger performers.
Although a potential menace and delinquent, Ox also possesses sensitive and redeemable traits. Spectators who find Bow Wow too delicate and diminutive probably will prefer the Ox, whose size and belligerence can become forces for good. Offhand, they also look like better qualifications for the NBA than Calvin's pretty face and wistful personality.
Bow Wow does seem relaxed and assured with the camera, but his comic potential needs better thought and execution. For example, it's a kick when he flies out of a spinning easy chair because of excess rotation, but it's stupid and disillusioning when he pretends to wallow in excess room-service orders and trashes a hotel room; or when he pretends to drive a car while Tracy is blotto on sleeping pills; or when Tracy, Calvin and Murph playfully splash paint all over the walls and grounds of Tracy's ocean-side mansion.
I'm also unpersuaded that Calvin needs to be an unbelievable pro in order to invigorate the Knights. Why couldn't he be the youngster who suddenly becomes a favorite and an inspiration showing his precocious stuff at halftime? The filmmakers are greedy for the impossible: They need a kid who can soar over the rim, defying all credibility.
Nevertheless, their exaggerations probably are going to contribute to the happiness of a lot of moviegoers during the holiday weekend. "Like Mike" could send more folks out with a glow than "Men in Black II," which has major expectations to fulfill and bungles the job.

*
TITLE: "Like Mike"
RATING: PG (Fleeting ominous episodes and comic vulgarity)
CREDITS: Directed by John Schultz. Screenplay by Michael Elliot and Jordan Moffet.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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