Review: ‘High Flying Bird’ is an exhilarating fast break

Straight, “no chaser” is how NBA agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) likes his news in “High Flying Bird,” and the same could be said for the cinematic preferences of director Steven Soderbergh, whose stripped-down latest is a fleet-footed fast break of a movie.

“High Flying Bird,” Soderbergh’s second film shot on iPhones and his first for Netflix, has been made with an exhilarating, no-nonsense immediacy. Standard movie gloss has been happily jettisoned to give it to us straight. The “it” is the free-flowing torrent of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s words (McCraney’s play was the basis for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”), whose hyper-verbal script has given the film’s talented cast, led by Holland, plenty to chew on.

Burke is a slick, fast-talking agent who, months into a lockout, is carrying out a scheme of mysterious objectives. Soderbergh and McCraney promptly submerge us in a soliloquy of Burke’s at a Manhattan restaurant meeting with his star client, the recent number-one pick of the draft, Erik Scott (newcomer Melvin Gregg). He speaks of ball as something sacred and pure and hints at the larger powers that control the game with a bravado only slightly undercut when his credit card is rejected. Burke pays in cash, hands Scott an envelope with something he calls “a bible” in it, and huffs it down the street.

It’s a breathless start to a breathless movie, set to “Sweet Smell of Success” speed. It pauses only for Burke, after the lunch, to walk downtown while Richie Havens plays. What we come to gather is that Burke is trying to take control of his own destiny and, for a moment at least, hold the game in his hands. “High Flying Bird” is a heady movie, full of political thought about sport, entertainment, race and power. Rather than float on production value, it sustains itself on the tension of ideas, exchanged rapid-fire in gleaming office towers.

There is almost no basketball in “High Flying Bird,” nor are there any of the normal sports-movie clichés. It’s concerned with “the game on top of the game,” as the wise Bronx coach Spencer (Bill Duke) calls the system imposed on basketball, one controlled mainly by white billionaires like owner David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), who’s negotiating with player rep Myra (a terrific Sonja Sohn).

What Burke has in mind is disruption and, maybe, a moment of freedom for the entertainers in the middle from the powers that be above. That such a framework is a metaphor for other institutions — the movie industry, most obviously — isn’t hard to miss. Both iPhones and Netflix have a pivotal role in Burke’s brewing rebellion. Burke’s hustle is Soderbergh’s. “High Flying Bird” is, itself, a crossover dribble to blow past the system.

“I’m not out. I’m just outside,” says Burke. “But I’m about to pull up a chair.”

A handful of insiders contribute wittingly or unwittingly to his plan, among them Burke’s former protege Sam (Zazie Beetz) and Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), the mother of Scott’s rival, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley). Burke subtly manipulates him into an impromptu one-on-one match that immediately goes viral.

For a movie full of characters who sincerely espouse the beauty of basketball, “High Flying Bird” could use more of the sport. I wish the filmmaking more obviously shared its characters’ affection for the game, not just their politics. There’s a trio of real NBA-ers (Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns) who appear now and again in black-and-white interviews to talk about the head-spinning leap from college to the pros — “a monster I don’t think anyone can prepare for,” says Jackson. They give the film an added flavor of reality but also interrupt the movie’s flow once it gets humming.

“High Flying Bird” shares much with Soderbergh’s previous capitalism critiques and insurgent heists (“The Girlfriend Experience,” ’'Ocean’s Eleven”). And it follows the director’s own failed revolt: a noble experiment to self-finance and distribute wide-release movies , the first being “Logan Lucky.”

Yet the spirit of that endeavor persists in “High Flying Bird,” a movie that feels held aloft by its innovative, no-chaser ethos. Though the iPhones here work surprisingly well (certainly better than they did in Soderbergh’s “Unsane”), I wonder if the story and the performances wouldn’t have been better served with the full apparatus of moviemaking behind them.

But then again, “High Flying Bird” might not have existed if it wasn’t made off-the-cuff on phones. And then we wouldn’t have this electric, thought-provoking script by McCraney or this overdue leading performance by the fabulous but under-used Holland. And then there’s the surest sign that “High Flying Bird” moves to its own rhythm: It culminates with, of all things, a book recommendation. How radical is that?

“High Flying Bird,” a Netflix release, isn’t rated by the Motion Picture Association of America but contains mature language. Running time: 90 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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Jake Coyle
Jake Coyle
Film writer and critic