September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

From its sweeping playground shots of kids playing hoops to its satirical portraits of fast-talking agents and pimping college recruiters, He Got Game, Spike Lee’s story of a high school basketball phenom, has big things to say about the sold-out soul of American sports. Yet it is more memorable for the emotional scenes between future star Jesus (Ray Allen) and his estranged father (Denzel Washington), who’s been let out of prison to talk him into signing with the governor’s alma mater. Washington does an award-worthy turn as a tough-love dad whose volatile temper led to tragedy and alienated his son. Milwaukee Bucks guard Allen, in his acting debut, is an intense innocent warily alive to the wonders that await. Four months after its opening, this still looks like one of the year’s best films. A-

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