For "Knights," which debuted on A&E in December 2005, a solo Hughes (Albert is nowhere to be found in the credits) brings a pinch of cold urban reality to an otherwise flat, by-the-numbers inspirational teacher/coach melodrama. The teleplay, from Dianne Houston (who would repeat the formula with "Take the Lead") and Jamal Joseph, morphs the true-life tale of Chess in the Schools founder David MacEnulty into the fictionalized story of Richard Mason (Ted Danson), a well-to-do businessman who uses his recent unemployment (he was fired for whistle-blowing, a backstory never actually explained, added in only to make the character even more saintly) as a chance to try his hand at teaching. Tossed into a rough fourth grade class in a rough South Bronx elementary school, Richard struggles to connect with the kids - until little Jimmy (Malcolm David Kelley, of "Lost") spies him in the park playing fourteen chess games at once.
Richard begins teaching the game to the kids, and he discovers that an interest in chess is leading to an increase in interest in academics and an improvement in every subject. Even the adorable kindergartener (Antonio Ortiz), who hangs around his older sister, picks up on the game with great ease.
Hughes emphasizes the darker, more somber aspects of the script, using plot points like fathers in prison and drug addict mothers to punctuate the drama. And in spots, it works - Hughes aims not for a "family friendly" tone, but for one that will resonate more with youngsters who might be caught up in the same troubled world as the characters themselves.
But such grittiness is undermined by a terminally lousy screenplay that's so reliant on cliché that we never connect to a single moment. Richard's unorthodox ways are frowned upon by school administrators, until, of course, they see results. Richard's family doesn't approve of his perceived "step down" in employment, until, of course, they see just how happier the kids make Richard - and eventually them. Jimmy is caught up with some dangerous thugs, until, of course, he discovers how chess can be his way out, and he doesn't need such bad influences in his life. The team's first public defeat sends them into fits of anger and despair, until, of course, Richard teaches them to lose gracefully. The drug addict mother cleans up her act, the father in prison gains respect for his son, and the neighborhood rallies behind the kids as they venture out to the national championships - which, of course, come down to one final match.
There's no honest dialogue here, only grating speeches that lead to swelling music and misty melodrama. Danson is particularly good here, especially in the early scenes in which he refuses to play it by character formula (he brings a confidence to the role most actors in similar roles don't show until later in the plot), yet he's stuck spewing hammy monologues and one-note bumper sticker philosophies. The kids (future star Keke Palmer among them) also fare rather well, considering they're cast way, way, way too old to be believable fourth graders, although perhaps such miscasting fits, as the script writes them far older than they're supposed to be, too.
We rush through so much in an attempt to squeeze it all into such a slim running time. It's never clear just how much time is passing as the kids become chess marvels seemingly overnight. And the writers' desire to just get on with things leaves us with clunky moments like the one in which a wealthy benefactor laughably shows up in class one morning to make a hefty donation to the kids' trip - a way of getting them to the championships without having the fundraising take up too much screen time.
The biggest slip-up arrives late in the picture, when Hughes, struggling to find a way to make chess more cinematic, brings a climactic game to literal life. First we see little lightning bolts connecting the pieces, and then tiny ghost ninjas leap out and tumble across the board. It's all in the mind's eye of the kindergarten prodigy, but it's also pretty darn lame-brained.
"Knights" is the sort of inspirational movie you want to like a lot more than you can ever brings yourself to doing. It has an innocent charm that merges surprisingly well with Hughes' darker vision, yet it stubbornly refuses to rise above its own genre, sticking so closely to the formula that it winds up earning more snickers than applause. It's an admirable but ultimately unworkable misfire.
Video & Audio
Considering the relative new-ness of the film, there's an unexpectedly heavy amount of grain on display here, and the whole thing comes off a bit on the soft side. Presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is a no-frills affair that comes across cleanly. Optional Spanish subtitles are provided.
None, except a set of previews for other Allumination releases.
While you can't fault Hughes for his unusual career path, one wishes his talents could have done more to salvage such a problematic, lazy story. Desperate fans of the genre might manage with a rental, while everyone else will do fine to simply Skip It.