What happens when a sentient algorithm goes after King James' clout?

Space Jam: A New Legacy can be described in one word, and that word is "expensive." And not just in terms of actual money, which is boring; no, it's built upon piles and piles of the only true currency in this bankrupt world, which as we all know is IP.

The first piece of it being, of course, Space Jam itself. The original 1996 comedy stars Michael Jordan as a version of himself, having retired from basketball until he is recruited to play one last game — with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes up against an animated crew called the Monstars, who are trying to attract more people to their intergalactic amusement park (just go with it). A New Legacy, directed by Girls Trip helmer Malcolm D. Lee and hitting theaters and HBO Max on July 16, refers on occasion to its predecessor but stands on its own. As Jordan did, LeBron James stars as himself, fictionalized. The plot revolves not around his retirement, but his relationship with one of his children, Dom (Cedric Joe), whose passion for designing video games — a medium his father can't appreciate — outweighs his interest in basketball.

Meanwhile over at Warner Bros. Studios, a sentient algorithm, helpfully named Al G. Rhythm and even more helpfully played by Don Cheadle (doing the absolute most), concocts a plan: Lure LeBron into the studio, gain power over him, and then command his millions of followers on social media. Yes, this whole operation revolves around a celeb's follower count! He's got 91 million on Instagram, if you can believe it! "Algorithmically speaking," Al G. Rhythm says, hauntingly, "he's more than just an athlete. He's a king… I'm just an algorithm."

Space Jam: A New Legacy
LeBron James in 'Space Jam: A New Legacy'
| Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Anyway, Al G. successfully pulls LeBron and Dom into his own domain, the WB "server-verse," where a series of increasingly outlandish developments put LeBron in a position to play a basketball game for his and his son's lives, this time against a group of super-players designed by Dom called the Goon Squad. James, of course, teams up with the Looney Tunes.

Both films are true products of their time: Space Jam is pure lighthearted '90s wackiness, and A New Legacy leans hard into the notion of the cinematic universe as well as the current general tendency to provide about 150% too much backstory. A New Legacy does not channel the energy of the older, goofier, smaller film; when in doubt, Lee and his battalion of screenwriters seem to just opt for more, turning up the bright colors and starry soundtrack and flying monkeys (actually though) that swirl around the thin plot about a father accepting his son for who he really is. That relationship is clearly supposed to give the film an emotional resonance, but that doesn't quite compute. It's genuinely hard to believe that LeBron would take this harrowing experience as a reason to support Dom's dream rather than taking it as definitive proof that video games are a destructive use of everyone's time, and that in fact all modern technology is highly questionable.

It is evident that James has a sense of humor (and the film does have a few funny moments), but he's not an actor, which becomes clear in scenes of his fictional family life. He really is a star, though, which is obvious any time he steps within half a server-verse of a basketball court. Even in his ridiculous Tune Squad jersey, backed by a ragtag army of decades-old cartoon characters freshly converted into disconcerting CGI, he comes across like a mythic hero when he's in his proper context.

If only it were truly his proper context, I kept wishing. Because here's the thing about basketball: It is extremely watchable. Here's the thing about Space Jam: A New Legacy: It's not. You will be amazed by how little the basketball game resembles an actual sport, and how hard it is to sit through. So I ask sincerely, why does this movie exist? I can think of two big reasons, and both of them are basically just to flex.

One is for Warner Bros.: The studio ostentatiously flips through its library of properties throughout the film, most notably in a series of brief clips of James gathering Tunes who have relocated to The Matrix and Austin Powers and, most distressingly, Casablanca. There is not much to be taken from these scenes, not even the pleasure of nostalgia; no meaningful reference is made to these films in spirit or content, though had Lee chosen to stage a rousing rendition of "La Marseillaise," it wouldn't even have been entirely inappropriate to the plot of Space Jam: A New Legacy, disgusted with myself though I am to say it. No, the shameless sequence exists to remind us that Wonder Woman and Harry Potter and the Wicked Witch of the West all belong to the same formidable company, and don't you forget it.

Perhaps even more so than for its studio, however, the film is a myth-building text for James, whose spectacular career is helpfully recapped in the opening credits and who is regularly referred to throughout the movie as King — just as his social handles, with all those millions of followers, label him. In one teasing moment, Cheadle's Al (the villain, lest we forget) notes that the "jury's still out" on whether the basketball star is the greatest of all time; in another that I won't spoil, the subject of Jordan comes up and is treated with nothing but great reverence and respect — only for us to be reminded, with a twisty little joke, that this isn't his movie anymore. This isn't his game anymore. It's LeBron's. And anyone comparing their GOAT-worthy careers can now put a big fat tally mark in the younger man's column to neatly match one in the older: starred as self in a half-cartoon cosmic-basketball-face-off super-adventure. Check.

And you know what? As such a monument (a LeBronument?), it kind of works. There are no other living American athletes who could really get away with Space Jam: A New Legacy (a lack for which we should all be grateful), and James basically does. The man's stature, already impressive, grows a little bit more when he gets to stand atop this enormous chunk of movie, now piled up with his many other achievements. Just as a film, though, for people to actually watch? Algorithmically speaking, it's no slam dunk. Grade: D+

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Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021 Movie)
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