Review: Critical Thinking

STUDIO: Vertical Entertainment | DIRECTOR: John Leguizamo | CAST: John Leguizamo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Corwin C. Tuggles, Jorge Lendenberg, Jr.
RELEASE DATE: Sept. 4, 2020
SPECS: NR | 117 min. | Drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

To say that chess is not the most cinematic of games may be an understatement. Yet it has been the centerpiece of such fine films as 1998’s terrific Searching for Bobby Fischer; the overlooked 2014’s Pawn Sacrifice, about the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky showdown; and the 2013 retro indie delight Computer Chess. Then, of course, there’s Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway’s erotic chess match in 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair and the legendary winner-take-all challenge on the beach between Max von Sydow’s Crusades warrior and the Grim Reaper in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).

With Critical Thinking, John Leguizamo (John Wick) adds another title to the world of memorable chess movies. The indefatigable Columbian-born, Queens-raised actor makes his directing debut and stars in this inspiring true-life drama of a determined teacher who mentors his students in playing chess and sees surprising results in the process.

Leguizamo is Mario Martinez, a Miami inner-city high school instructor who, in 1998, handles the toughest black and LatinX kids in the district and also heads the impoverished school’s chess club. At first, Martinez is met with both derision and apathy while trying to get his students to tackle competitive chess, but his interest in their troubled lives leads to the kids’ trust in him. Eventually, they go along with the program despite their seemingly insurmountable personal and familial issues, learning to use what they’ve absorbed from Martinez along the way. But can they overcome their problems, concentrate on their intense games and capture a national championship?

If you think this sounds a bit like “Rocky Plays Chess” or “To Sir with Love…with Kings and Queens,” you’re right. But despite its familiarity, it works. Leguizamo is winning and believable in the lead and does a fine, unobtrusive job in the filmmaking department, working from a streetwise script by Dito Montiel (writer-director of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints).  He’s helped  immeasurably by a spirited ensemble cast that includes Corwin C. Tuggles (Paterno), a pupil trying to break free of his oppressive  father, and Jorge Lendenberg, Jr. (Alita: Battle Angel)  as an angry, hard-working kid with severe financial issues.

Slated for the South by Southwest Film Festival before the COVID outbreak, Critical Thinking‘s realistic approach includes some strong language and uncomfortable situations but, based on this effort, there are essential lessons on hand for filmgoers and chess players of of all ages.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.