By all rights, "Like Mike" should be a lousy movie. Designed as a slap-dash kiddie flick, built around a dumb plot device (magic sneakers turn a young orphan into an NBA all-star) and starring a flash-in-the-pan novelty hip-hopper (Lil' Bow Wow), its overall concept is thick with seemingly predictable, third-hand story elements. Will the kid find adoptive parents? Will his team win the big game? Well, duh.
But director John Schultz ("Drive Me Crazy") doesn't use the shoes as a storytelling crutch (they account for about four minutes of the whole movie), he gets charismatic performances from his cast of talented players, and he beats down almost every encroaching cliché, creating in their stead a smart kids' picture of delightful surprises.
Sure, as the film begins street-smart but endearingly sweet 14-year-old Calvin Cambridge (Bow Wow) is living in a laughably diverse group home (his two best friends are a white boy played by "Jerry Maguire's" Jonathan Lipnicki and an Asian girl played by Brenda Song), where he's picked on by a teenage bully and dreams of being adopted. "Parents only want the puppies," he moans.
But with amusingly creepy character actor Crispin Glover ("Charlie's Angels," "Back to the Future") cast as the greedy foster father who plans to get rich exploiting Calvin, it's soon clear that "Like Mike" isn't interested in recycling old clichés. It wants to tweak them with a taste of tangy new humor.
When a pair of sneakers that supposedly belonged to Michael Jordan arrives at the foster home in a box of donated clothing, Calvin puts them on and suddenly displays mad skills as a basketball player -- including the ability to jump 20 feet for a slam dunk during a halftime contest at Los Angeles Knights game.
Smelling a marketing gimmick, the business manager of the fictitious Knights recruits Calvin as a new "player." He's intended to be nothing but a mascot, but he becomes a superstar after the coach (Robert Forster) puts him in one game on a whim and the kid scores 20 points.
While "Like Mike" is so cheap with the special effects that we never see Calvin make a basket in a single camera shot, Bow Wow can handle the ball convincingly enough that you'll believe it when he outfoxes several NBA guest-stars (Allen Iverson, Karl Malone and Alonzo Mourning among others). And these scenes are all about the game, not the gimmick. Director Schultz doesn't include a single shot of the shoes as the kid plays, and he gives the basketball scenes an abundance of energy with a great club mix soundtrack.
A good portion of the story, however, is about Calvin's friendship with Knights star Tracey Reynolds (Morris Chestnut, "The Brothers"). The pro can't believe he's been stuck babysitting this hyperactive kid, who bounces on hotel beds, pigs out on room service sweets and cramps Tracey's style with groupies during road trips.
It's tons of little details like Chestnut's hilariously deadpan reaction shots that make "Like Mike" so enjoyable. It's Calvin crawling into a team huddle or jumping up behind a ballplayer during a post-game interview to put in his two cents. It's the funny montage sequence of weird potential parents suddenly interested in adopting Calvin after he becomes a media darling. It's the fact that Tracey is estranged from his own father, yet when they're reunited it's in a quick, dialogue-free transition scene of the two men having a beer and not some drawn-out, weepy, feel-good moment full of hugs and apologies.
This is not a brilliant or original movie. It's fluff that fades fast from your memory. It's also dragged down by a car-vs.-scooter chase scene finale that is disappointingly contrived and lackluster in the wake of the pizzazz and cleverness that comes before it.
But it's a smart and spirited movie that knows there's a way to make a standard kids' movie while sidestepping the hackneyed elements that make such movies so intolerable to anyone who isn't a kid.
Run time: 99 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 3rd July 2002
Box Office USA: $51.4M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: 20th Century Fox, Like Mike Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 55 Rotten: 42
IMDB: 5.0 / 10
Director: John Schultz
Starring: Bow Wow as Calvin Cambridge, Morris Chestnut as Tracey Reynolds, Jonathan Lipnicki as Murph, Brenda Song as Reg Stevens, Jesse Plemons as Ox, Julius Ritter as Marlon (as Julius Charles Ritter), Crispin Glover as Stan Bittleman, Anne Meara as Sister Theresa, Robert Forster as Coach Wagner, Eugene Levy as Frank Bernard, Roger Morrissey as Marvin Joad (as Roger Morrissey), Timon Kyle as Henderson
Also starring: Lil' Bow Wow, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Finley, Lethon Flowers III, Steve Francis, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Alonzo Mourning, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitski, Gary Payton, Jason Richardson, David Robinson, Takeo Spikes, John Robert Thompson, Rasheed Wallace, Gerald Wallis, Chris Webber, Amhad Rashad