'King Richard' review: A movie for everyone, with Will Smith in ace form

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, father of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams, in excellent sports drama.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

All hail "King Richard," an overhand smash of a movie that is rousing, fun, big-hearted, inspirational, celebratory, triumphant and made for absolutely everyone. It's the kind of stand up-and-cheer blockbuster that people say Hollywood doesn't make anymore — because, for the most part, it doesn't.

Which is what makes "King Richard" so overwhelmingly refreshing. Will Smith aces his role as Richard Williams, the driven, dogged, prickly and particular father of Venus and Serena Williams, who was determined to turn his daughters into world-class superstars on the tennis court.

Will Smith, Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney in "King Richard."

It's a bright, shining star performance from Smith, twice nominated previously for Best Actor (for "Ali" and "The Pursuit of Happyness"), who should be clearing some space on his trophy shelf for his first Oscar statue. And it won't be the only big win for "King Richard," which could come away from awards season as decorated as the Williams sisters themselves.

Richard is a father of five and is, as he puts it, in the "champion-raising business." He has detailed plans laid out (literally, in an 85-page document) for the futures of his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), his trillion-megawatt star athletes to-be, and his two biological daughters with Oracene "Brandy" Price (Aunjanue Ellis, superb), his wife, who has three girls from a previous marriage.

They're raising them in Compton, California, where the facilities aren't quite performance-grade. Richard drives the family VW bus to the public tennis courts and turns them into his training ground, he and his girls hanging inspirational posters along the fencing ("If you fail to plan, you plan to fail") and running the sisters through endless practice drills. Under Richard's rule, practice is everything: practice is life, practice is religion, practice is God. 

Richard, with his short shorts and even shorter tolerance for anything that is not done to his letter, is a target of ridicule from the local riff-raff. He sometimes catches a beating, but writes it off as part of the price he pays for protecting his girls.

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in "King Richard."

After one especially violent beatdown, however, he goes on a mission of revenge. When a potentially life-changing altercation is interrupted at the very last second — someone else gets to the guy first — it's a sign from the universe that he must stay the course and not jeopardize the plan in front of him.

Smith plays Richard, who is known to be quite mercurial, as resolute, tough and goal-oriented to a fault. But he's not a barking menace or a con artist or someone looking to profit unfairly from his daughters' talent. He believes in getting what is earned and earning what is gotten, but also in giving his girls a healthy work-life balance and not pushing them when they don't need to be pushed. And if all of that makes him difficult to deal with, that's fine. There's no blueprint for the type of boundary-breaking success he's chasing, so if it makes him seem crazy to others, he's OK with that, too. 

Tony Goldwyn is excellent as Paul Cohen, a big time tennis coach who takes Venus under his wing. (Venus is a year older than Serena, and Serena is made to wait her turn.) Eventually the girls train under Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, having an absolute blast), who moves the entire Williams family to his Florida training facility, and is forced to put up with Richard's bizarre demand that the girls not compete in junior tournaments. It's the kind of gamble that is idiotic if things don't work out, but genius if they do. 

Well, the world knows how the Williams sisters turned out. And "King Richard" is able to tell their tale from a clear and relatable standpoint, turning it into a wholly American story of family, determination and willpower. Do the Williams sisters receive short shrift because their father is the focus? Not even close. This is just as much their story, and they come out shining, too.  

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green, in just his third feature (he made 2018's "Monsters and Men" and this year's misstep "Joe Bell"), packs a wallop. "King Richard" has a steady momentum that builds from scene to scene and never lags, even as it charts familiar territory. Working from a steady, focused script by debut screenwriter Zach Baylin, Green takes the audience on a ride that never stumbles and takes no false steps, even if it softens some of the rougher edges of the real life Mr. Williams. It makes for a powerful journey, a thrilling success story and a stirring tribute to the strength of family. "Richard" is king. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'King Richard'

GRADE: A

Rated PG-13: for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references

Running time: 144 minutes

In theaters and on HBO Max