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The Rules of the Game Change in John Leguizamo’s ‘Critical Thinking’ – Review

One will probably never see chess reach nail-biting velocity outside of Critical Thinking. Even if they do, it will be without the authenticity that John Leguizamo pumps into this directorial debut. The Colombian born and New York raised actor is well known for being in front of the camera in esteemed work such as When They See Us and Moulin Rouge. With an acting career spanning over three decades, it was only a matter of time until he turned the tables and helmed the camera himself. It turns out that this was long overdue for Critical Thinking bleeds the voice of a brown man who has been dying to share his two cents.

The film follows the tale of the Miami Jackson High School chess team. Their inner-city roots lack the privileges of other schools. Without proper funding and necessities, marginalized students do not have many opportunities to choose from. The cultural and ethnic borders of 1998 Miami do not do provide any service to them either. Against all odds, aspiring chess aficionados Sedrick Roundtree (Corwin C. Tuggles), Ito Paniagua (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Rodelay Medina (Angel Bismark Curiel), Gil Luna (Will Hochman), and Marcel Martinez (Jeffry Batista) rise to become the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship.

Their ascension to untouched glory is far from easy. Schoolboards and chess officials assign them baggage based on the color of skin and income. Thankfully, their passionate coach and teacher Mario Martinez (played by Leguizamo himself) is there to help cut this tethered oppression. The goal is to not only break borders, but to change the mindset of chess itself. Rules are broken, honor is surveyed, and conventionality is subverted. Leguizamo finds new meaning in turning the tables by making his directorial debut put the concept of “based on a true story” on its head. The result proves that his voice is one to be reckoned with (even though his career is far worth due recognition) within Latinx cinema.

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(Image via Critical Thinking, LLC)

The story of a teacher who must break the conventions of the classroom to reach marginalized students is one very familiar to Hollywood. Films like Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver have paved the way for these kinds of films, but also add an extra level of risk. The true story of the Miami Jackson High chess team is one worthy of the big screen, but given the steep levels of falling into familiar territory, what innovation does Critical Thinking have to offer? Even though Leguizamo molds his film with this question looming over his head, he shows no intimidation.

Leguizamo crafts Critical Thinking with clear vision and joy. Not only is his direction thorough until the end, but it could not be more obvious how much fun he, the cast, and crew had during production. The script penned by Dito Montiel (Man Down) is the backbone of this notion. Leguizamo and Montiel are both aware of how conventional this story could be portrayed in other hands. They tackle this tethered stigma in the same way the students do in the story: head-on. The film is completely aware that there is a certain level of familiarity that cannot be avoided with a teacher-student narrative. Leguizamo goes with the flow and pokes fun at the “corniness” of it all. He immerses the viewer into being a member of the class – fully aware that he could lose one’s interest at any slip. He does what any influential educator does, and goes above and beyond the curriculum, thus making something like chess electrifying to watch and learn.

This elevates the film above others as an honest hybrid between a sports and class drama. The cast in return vitalize this union of genre with their riveting synergy. Tuggles, Curiel, Hochman, Batista, and Lendeborg Jr. all energize the screen in different ways. Each brings a unique drive for chess that never loses its grasp on the viewer’s undivided attention. Lendeborg Jr. proves yet again that he should be on everyone’s’ radars with this performance along with his roles in Bumblebee and Love, Simon. Leguizamo may be guiding this tale, but the actors that follow behind each deserve their due credit for making the world of Critical Thinking feel not only earnest and thrilling, but also as a bona fide love letter to the melting pot of Miami.

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(Image via Critical Thinking, LLC)

Leguizamo’s efforts to shoot high in this film are very admirable. Despite this, Montiel’s script does not feel like it ties the overall desired knot of resolution at the end. The pacing never goes unchecked within the nearly 2-hour run time. However, there being so many characters and plot threads does not make the film feel like it really wants to end when it does. The back of the book does not match the same size as the front when covering the pages in between. The film’s focus does lose some sharpness by the end, making the viewer desire to see more from certain characters. Leguizamo can only show so much with what the script gives him. If he did not capitalize so much with what he was given then these faults would have been more jarring.

In retrospect, Leguizamo tackling this as his directorial debut is quite bold. What falters by the end is incomparable to what rides high all the way through. Decisions such as choosing to shoot the majority of the film handheld or how he intricates Chris Hajian’s colorful score make one hope that he gets more chances to direct sooner than later. Leguizamo choosing to not go the easy route with this film is inspiring. Early on he describes chess as “the great equalizer”. Race nor class has no effect on the chessboard. Winning all comes from one’s mind and no one else can set borders in there but themselves. A resonant message for a Latinx artist to send in such a concerning time in the world.

★★★★

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