With a John Woo-like start -- the screen is filled with flapping doves -- director Tim Blake is pretty close to being on the mark in his attempt to translate Shakespeare for a contemporary audience. Working with the Bard's tragedy Othello, a story of jealousy gone insanely out of control, Nelson (best known for playing the third jailbreaker in O Brother, Where Art Thou? behind George Clooney and John Turturro) and his screenwriter Brad Kaaya have moved the action from the battlefield to the basketball court. Where the great military man Othello somehow overlooked the loyal services of his lieutenant Iago, in O the team's star player Odin (Mekhi Phifer) overlooks the contributions of another player, his best friend Hugo (Josh Hartnett, most recently seen gumming up Pearl Harbor).
All it takes is Odin's praise for a different player to get Hugo started on his rocky road of retribution. He suddenly hates his best pal and will stop at nothing to get even for a supposed snub. And there are plenty of ways to go about this. Odin is the only black student at the fancy southern prep school where the story is set. And Odin is in the middle of a hot relationship with Desi (Julia Stiles), the daughter of the school's dean (John Heard). Yet wisely, the filmmakers stay away from the obvious; there are only a couple of references regarding the black-white relationship. The film sticks much closer to character than color.
And as a character study, much like the villainous Iago on whom he was based, Hugo makes quite the subject. It's clear why he's upset, but it's never really explained why he would go as far as he does in exacting his revenge (if indeed revenge was even called for). But before long, the popular Hugo (popular with everyone but Desi, who just has a bad feeling about him) launches a series of devious schemes that, while making him look good to others, sets off a chain of events that leads to innocent people getting hurt. Circumstances spin slowly out of control, then pick up momentum and eventually lead toward death.
The deaths by gunfire near the end of the film are supposedly the reason that it's been sitting on a shelf for the past two years, completed but waiting for a distributor to step forward and release it. A bit of bad timing had the filming coming out just after the shootings at Columbine in 1999, and those in charge thought it better not to have high school violence on the screen just then. The film's story and the real-life event have absolutely nothing to do with one another, but that's how skittish minds were working back then.
Which is really too bad for the folks involved with the film, partially because it seems so derivative now of other updatings such as William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Ten Things I Hate About You. Actually, this one is a far better example of a clever adaptation than any of the attempts before it. The original story is for the most part intact, right up to the scarf (originally a handkerchief) that cements the deceit and mistrust that has already been set into motion.
The young stars of the film are all up to the task, with Phifer nailing the role and smoothly going through the changes that bring him from campus hero to nervous wreck. Hartnett presents a portrait of evil that, while making one wonder why he's doing it, is absolutely convincing in his blank-faced approach. Stiles has done better before, and is slightly flat here -- but remember, this was filmed a while ago and she's now much more practiced at her craft. That argument can't be used as an excuse for a couple of the adult players, though. Martin Sheen, as the basketball coach, puts forth his most excitable character in years, but he overdoes it to the point of regularly turning red and sweating. And John Heard as Desi's father appears lost in his part, roaming around the set not sure where to turn. It's got to be his dullest, most confused performance to date.
Of course the audiences the film is aimed at aren't even going to be looking at these two characters. If the filmmakers get their wishes, all eyes will be riveted on the handsome and beautiful young players. Unfortunately for everyone else, there's the soundtrack to deal with -- the loud, obnoxious hip-hop soundtrack. Yet the real problem is not the music itself. It's the way it's used in a totally intrusive manner, suddenly blaring in out of the blue as if it were yet another angry character trying to get a word in. But it's a character who has nothing to say.