Netflix UK film review: High Flying Bird
Ivan Radford | On 18, Feb 2019
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Andre Holland, Melvin Gregg, Kyle MacLachlan
Watch High Flying Bird online in the UK: Netflix UK
There are sports movies and there are sports movies. High Flying Bird, a new basketball drama from Steven Soderbergh, is neither. From Erin Brockovich to The Knick and Logan Lucky, Soderbergh has always had a soft spot for outsiders, and High Flying Bird sees him dribble that same concern through territory that’s fresh and wonderfully, pointedly modern.
He throws us into the middle of a trade dispute in America’s NBA, with a pay deal between the players’ union and the league owners far from being agreed – a lockout that leaves nobody on the court and everybody out of pocket. That lack of money, though, affects some more than others: for the slimy owner of one team (Kyle MacLachlan), it’s a trifling inconvenience; for Erick (Melvin Gregg), a rising talent who’s on the cusp of his dream career, it’s a major financial blow.
Enter Ray (Andre Holland), the agent who has just signed Erick. We met him as he scolds his client for resorting to using a loan shark to make ends meet, then watch him as he swoops into action, spying an opportunity amid the messy arguments to bring about a change. If the idea of trade negotiations sounds boring, rest assured – this is a long way from The Phantom Menace. High Flying Bird ducks in and out of the intricacies of NBA’s boardroom hustle with gripping, electrifying ease, dissecting the game thats played out on top of the game with agility, accessibility and an astute grasp of commerce, all the while never being anything less than enjoyable. Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote Moonlight (based on his own play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), tosses big ideas around with lip-smacking dialogue, his narrative sleight of hand so polished that even a low-budget film made up of little more than office conversations is slick as.
The cast don’t fail to convert the opportunity, from MacLachlan’s loathsome tycoon to Bill Duke’s veteran mentor and, in particular, Zazie Beetz as the scene-stealing Samantha, Ray’s ruthless assistant, who seems to have the upper hand on her former boss-turned-underdog. At the heart of it all, Melvin Gregg brings a grounded sincerity to Erick, who’s caught up in his own rivalry with Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley). But puncturing every inflated individual is Ray, played by the remarkable Holland with a shark-like smile, wolf-like wits and – most of all – soul. He’s a smooth operator, but one who has real plans and genuine motivations; he wants the lockout, but partly so it can foster a different, fairer future, one that’s driven by the democratising power of technology. And the chance to make a profit doesn’t hurt, either.
The more the film goes on, the more you can see the appeal for Soderbergh, who thrives on stories that sit at the edge of the frame – the knowledge that he shot the whole thing on an iPhone, which he did previously with Unsane, adds to the urgency and fluidity of the fast-moving story, which he captures with the unflashy but effortlessly cool rat-a-tat of a man knocking on a door the movie industry hasn’t quite found the key to yet. He gamely picks up McCraney’s hot potato of race, class and commodification, and runs with it to the basket, sinking a topical examination of politics, power and corruption – a knowing, insightful blend of Jason Reitman’s Thank you For Smoking, Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, Ted Griffin’s Ocean’s Eleven and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, with a bit of B-ball chucked in. He juxtaposes events with interviews from real life players about jumping from rookie to the big league, a flourish that stops things feeling too stagey, but the result is a reminder that this is a filmmaker who’s far from a beginner – for a sports movie that isn’t a sports movie, this is top flight entertainment.
High Flying Bird is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.