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Published: Thursday, 7/4/2002

`Like Mike': Many questions, few answers

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Like Mike tells the story of an orphan who is given magical product placement in the form of Nike athletic shoes. He is then mistreated by a professional sports organization and sold out by his own orphanage.

No, really. The idea is you'll walk out of this movie with a song in your heart. If Disney suddenly had the entire MTV marketing posse at the helm, I would find it difficult to imagine a more cynical kids' movie. Disney was not involved - it's a 20th Century Fox film - but Like Mike plays like a particularly lethal strain of goofy family Disney throwaways from the '70s about lovable Volkswagens, shaggy D.A.s, and cats from outer space.

Lil' Bow Wow, the ragamuffin rapper, stars as Calvin, an aw-shucks kind of orphan surrounded by the most bitter assemblage of child actors in Hollywood. Calvin lives in an orphanage in a part of Los Angeles that's a short commute from the 20th Century Fox offices. His best friend is Murph, played by Jonathan Lipnicki, the formerly cute kid from Jerry Maguire, now entering one of those awkward stages. They dream of finding a family to adopt them.

To break up the wait - I don't think these kids go to school - Calvin and Murph hang out around the Staples Center at night, peddling chocolate in the parking lot. No one, not the people buying the candy, the orphanage, the coach of the fictional Los Angeles Knights basketball team, or the filmmakers, seems to think this is strange.

One day, a nun played by Ann Meara visits the orphanage and tosses Calvin a pair of secondhand Nike sneakers. She says she heard from someone who heard that the shoes once belonged to a famous basketball player.

“The tall bald one,” she adds. “Michael Jordan?” Calvin asks, and indeed, “MJ” is scratched on an inside seam. But a bully tosses the sneakers around an electrical line, and before you have time to decide if pushy little Bow Wow would turn the other cheek in a music video, let alone this movie, he's scrambling up a telephone pole in a lightning storm to retrieve his shoes. But he's too late: Mr. Wow and the sneakers are struck by lightning, and when he wears the shoes, he is good enough to be hired by the NBA.

Ask yourself: If you ran the NBA, would you want to be involved with Like Mike?

Yes, Calvin is befriended by a Los Angeles Knight named Tracey Reynolds (an affable Morris Chestnut) who has his own family issues and is contemplating adoption. But chew on this: Calvin signs an initial NBA contract worth only $7,500.

A league official (Eugene Levy) and the Knights coach (Robert Forster) negotiate this contract with the visibly unstable head of the orphanage, played by, no kidding, Crispin Glover. Later when Glover threatens Bow Wow, the kid rides a scooter over his head.

At the 60-minute mark, with less than 30 minutes to go, I realized there were many questions still unanswered. Answered: Will Bow Wow find a family? Will Tracey reconcile with his own father?

Unanswered: What is the deal with the shoes? Did Michael Jordan actually wear them? (He never shows his face.) If so, by the ratty look of this footwear, wouldn't Bow Wow develop more than a killer three-point shot?

The movie doesn't have the imagination to consider any answers. When Bow Wow first walks into the Staples Center he just looks back and forth; he never looks up toward the huge ceiling, and the movie doesn't give him many magic moments on the court, either. More astonishing: Like Mike never offers a lesson about anything other than the advantages of being adopted by a multi-millionaire with beachfront property.

Every time Bow Wow is put in the position of having to play without his sneakers, the movie sends him on an expedition to recover them. He never has to face his limitations, believe in himself, or admit he's a fraud with magic shoes. In baseball, it's called a corked bat.



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