"UNCLE DREW" — 3 stars — Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O'Neal, Lisa Leslie, Reggie Miller; PG-13 (suggestive material, language and brief nudity); in general release
If you squint hard enough, "Uncle Drew" is more or less a basketball version of "The Blues Brothers." The story gathers a group of old comrades together on behalf of a righteous cause. They travel together in an iconic vehicle, and there's even a jilted romantic interest — involving former WNBA star Lisa Leslie — looming over the proceedings.
Charles Stone III's film is adapted from a series of Pepsi commercials that featured current Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving dressed up like an old man hustling random groups of street ball players on neighborhood basketball courts. And considering that context, "Uncle Drew" actually turned out pretty good.
The plot follows Drew, an ex-street ball champion (played in heavy makeup by Irving), who gathers his aging teammates for one last shot at the Rucker Classic, a legendary venue in New York City. But interestingly enough, Drew is not the protagonist of the film that bears his name.
That job goes to Dax (Lil Rel Howery), an amateur coach who is haunted by memories of his childhood athletic failures. He's trying to put together a winning squad for the tournament after his rival Mookie (Nick Kroll) steals his team (led by Orlando Magic restricted free agent Aaron Gordon) and his girlfriend Jess (Tiffany Haddish).
After meeting Drew on a pickup court, Dax convinces him to join forces against the 21st-century ballers, in the name of playing the game "the right way." Drew only has one condition: They have to use his players. So the pair set off on a road trip in Drew's bright orange Chevy van to gather a group of teammates he hasn't seen since 1968.
As they gather Drew's team — made up of former NBA stars in "old man" drag — we learn about some of the bad blood that led to the breakup and watch as the street ball veteran tries to patch up old wounds. Preacher (Chris Webber) is a minister with a small congregation in Washington, D.C., Big Fella (Shaquille O'Neal) is a kung fu instructor, Boots (Nate Robinson) is confined to a wheelchair and tended to by his granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash), and when Lights (Reggie Miller) is asked whether he's blind, his response is: "Legally or actually?"
Building so much of the plot around the acting talents of former NBA superstars has a compromising effect on the finished product, and at times, the improvised comedic riffing from Howery and Kroll drags a little too far past its expiration date. But "Uncle Drew," while not a great sports movie, still manages to cover its more obvious shortcomings with a big heart and a strong message about confronting your past.
"Uncle Drew" also features a wealth of in-jokes and winking references that will get knowing smiles from longtime NBA fans — and they aren't all connected to Shaq. Best of all, somehow, in spite of its shortcomings, "Uncle Drew" manages to capture the joy of basketball. And for a movie inspired by a TV commercial, that's a pretty noble achievement.
"Uncle Drew" is rated PG-13 for suggestive material, language and brief nudity; running time: 103 minutes.