As fellow philosophers hidden behind rippling physiques, Kyrie Irving feels a certain kinship with Bruce Lee. In a recent video interview with GQ, the Celtics point guard shouted out the Bruce Lee Podcast, an ongoing discussion of the famed fighter’s life and Tao with the late Lee’s daughter. Last year, Irving unveiled a collaboration with Nike called the “Mamba Mentality,” styled black and yellow after Lee’s oft-imitated jumpsuit from Game of Death. And while Irving’s the star of the newly released Uncle Drew, the film finds Shaquille O’Neal on Lee’s turf, practicing his Shaq Fu at a remote dojo. Kazaam be damned, he’s never looked better than he does rocking a hairpiece–mutton-chop combo ganked off of Heihachi from Tekken.
Uncle Drew may have begun as a series of Pepsi Max ads, but when expanded to feature length and forced to adopt things like “plot” and “dialogue” and “other characters,” it behaves in a remarkably similar fashion to the kung fu movies that have enraptured its star. Though Lee’s tendency to work in his present era didn’t quite hit the mark, director Charles Stone III’s efforts hew more closely to the classical-minded wuxia epics of the ’60s and ’70s, period pieces peopled by Buddhist monks and warring clans. Hollywood hasn’t had much interest in pursuing traditional wuxia following the blip of Stateside curiosity inspired by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s surprise box-office windfall, so fans of the genre tend to look in unlikely places and think in the abstract. Having said that, in both form and function, Uncle Drew is hands-down the best work of martial-arts cinema to come out of the American studio system in years.
The story schematic pasted onto the existing Uncle Drew character profile could have been taken from a selection from the Shaw Brothers collection, with the particulars of hand-to-hand combat replaced with those of street ball. Grizzle-faced Uncle Drew may be the GOAT, but our man is Dax (Lil Rel Howery), Foot Locker sneaker pusher by day and basketball coach by off-day. After his star player bails on him to shack up with douche king Mookie (Nick Kroll) and takes the rest of the team with him, Dax has to scramble to put together a squad for the upcoming Rucker Classic tournament in his native Harlem. The game-of-games bit recalls Lee’s magnum opus Enter the Dragon. Moreover, the tribal mentality of the neighborhoods as they send their champions to battle hearkens back to the training monastery rivalries common in wuxia.
Dax gets a saving grace in Uncle Drew, as the former Rucker champion agrees to come out of retirement and assemble an elite squadron of his old teammates. They’re pretty much the Five Deadly Venoms gang of geriatric ballers, each with their own distinguishing characteristic: Shaq’s a terse sensei, Chris Webber is a magnificently permed preacher who has the power of the Lord guiding him to the basket, Reggie Miller plays a blind master a few centuries and a couple continents away from The Master of the Flying Guillotine’s protagonist, and Nate Robinson dons a Frederick Douglass wig as a paraplegic with magic Chuck Taylors. The films of King Hu, Chang Cheh, and their ilk always placed elders in a position of reverence, understood to be massively powerful even if their appearances didn’t suggest as much. Old people sonning insolent youngsters was a staple trope of the genre, and that’s translated all too easily to the unforgiving crucible of the neighborhood court. In no subtle way, Uncle Drew and his squad arrive at the Rucker to remind the new generation’s rock-hogging showboaters that the true honor of basketball lies in teamwork.
Narrative aside, the immediate pleasures of martial-arts movies are readily comparable to those offered by Uncle Drew. From a set of highly specific cultural referents — feudal Chinese history, the rich legacy of basketball in Harlem — the films move to a universal register in their close admiration of the human body pushed to its limits. Dax’s old-and-improved Harlem Money lineup plays like they’re sparring, each step and pump-fake as precise and methodical as a jab or parry. The handful five-on-five matches are the clear standout scenes, playing to the professional strengths of nonprofessional actors. The nimble camera wants the audience to admire the elaborate footwork, to see how they anticipate one another’s smallest motion and counteract it as if they’re playing chess. (The other thing kung fu movies loved comparing to fighting.) The spectacle of bodies in motion goes back to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers all the way up to Magic Mike XXL, but Uncle Drew and its kung fu forebears share an athleticism setting them apart. The same brutal poetry contained within Gordon Liu’s flying spin kicks is present in Uncle Drew’s split-second steals.
The parallels even extend to the occasionally misbegotten humor filling out the open spaces between set pieces. Uncle Drew often goes for the easy laugh; sometimes that means entry-level slapstick, and sometimes that means a split-second shot of Shaq’s mighty, exposed buttocks. Likewise, the best wuxia films were often broken up by interludes of broad and sophomoric comedy that elicit most of their chuckles from modern audiences with a thin veneer of irony. In 2018, the novelty of the dated production values has become a joke unto itself. Fans of the old school hold a special space in their hearts for the soundstage sets’ beautifully artificial approximation of the outdoors, the stilted dialogue nonetheless delivered with maximum enthusiasm by eager-to-please performers, and some of the most spectacularly bad faux facial hair in the medium’s history. When Chris Webber’s fake mustache starts to pop off of his face in one take that the editor decided to use anyway, it might be a hiccup of incompetence. Or it might be homage.
Kung fu cinema is built on legends, on superhuman feats of strength and agility like besting a horde of enemies using only one hand. Uncle Drew, as the rumors have it, once outplayed an entire opposing team while holding a ham sandwich (with mayo!). Uncle Drew’s silhouette provided the NBA with the figure for its logo, and don’t believe what you’ve heard about Jerry West. Drew is cut from the same mythical cloth as the Drunken Master: a bit rusty and far from washed-up, peerless in his discipline, rejoining the mortals to restore order. The film is never better than when he first steps onto the paint to sort out some disrespectful challengers with a game of one-on-one. We have the privilege of witnessing a virtuoso in complete control of his art form, his every muscle operating in perfect tandem to completely ruin this fool. Drew lets his opponent score a couple baskets and then starts toying with him, juking him out a couple times just to show how easy this all is. It’s the kind of grace note that sets the folk tales apart from the mere men. It’s the kind of finesse that turned Lee Jun-fan into Bruce Lee.