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MOVIE REVIEW

This ‘King Richard’ rules a different kind of court

Will Smith aces the role of Venus and Serena Williams’s father

Will Smith as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams, and  Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in "King Richard."
Will Smith as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams, and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in "King Richard."Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

The first thing you see in “King Richard” is a tennis racket being strung. Strung or strung out? It’s also a tool, a weapon, a shield, and scepter, as we’ll see over the course of the next 144 minutes.

The first thing you hear in “King Richard” is a voice saying, “When I’m interested in a thing, I learn it. . . . That’s what I did with tennis and the girls.” The girls are Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton), and the voice belongs to their father, Richard. He’s the monarch referred to in the title. “Somebody was always beating on me for something,” he tells his daughters. “This world had no respect for Richard Williams. But they’re going to respect you.”

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From left: Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney, and Will Smith in "King Richard."
From left: Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney, and Will Smith in "King Richard."Chiabella James/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In addition to showing in theaters, “King Richard” is streaming on HBO Max.

Richard Williams is famous, or notorious, or both, as the tennis father to end all tennis fathers. The fact that he raised not just one but two of the greatest players in the history of the game does rather validate his methods. When Williams describes his very young daughters to the tennis eminento Vic Braden (Kevin Dunn), Braden can only shake his head. “It’s like asking someone to believe you’ve got the next two Mozarts living your house.” It is, but he does.

Although Williams can frequently be a jerk, we know he’s a jerk who got results. As played by Will Smith, he’s a real piece of work: part hustler, part visionary, part blowhard, part devoted dad. Motivational speaking lost a great one when Williams chose to focus on his daughters.

From left: Demi Singleton, Will Smith, and Saniyya Sidney in "King Richard."
From left: Demi Singleton, Will Smith, and Saniyya Sidney in "King Richard."Chiabella James/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s a showy part, and Smith gives it all he’s got, which is a lot. The result is a captivating performance. Rather than trying to conceal Williams’s shortcomings, Smith revels in them, and they (almost) become endearing. Williams is shameless, and what quality comes more naturally to a movie star than shamelessness? Reinaldo Marcus Green (”Joe Bell”) directed, but it’s Smith’s movie.

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The man Smith plays is as abrasive as his scraggly beard, but also as charming as his sleepy eyes and trace of Louisiana accent. Smith lets you see why Williams rubs people the wrong way. He also lets you see why people put up with all the rubbing. The putting up with would appear to extend to his daughters: Venus and Serena are among the film’s executive producers.

Williams drew up a multi-page plan for the girls’ tennis careers even before they were born and was sending a training prospectus to potential coaches when they were still quite young. “We’re not here to rob you,” he explains to one of them, with his best pitchman sincerity. “We’re here to make you rich.”

Aunjanue Ellis in "King Richard."
Aunjanue Ellis in "King Richard."Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

By then, Williams was living in Los Angeles. That’s where he met the girls’ mother, Brandy. Both Williamses were previously married, which Zach Baylin’s script skates around; nor is it easy to keep track of Venus and Serena’s various half-siblings. This is presumably by design. “King Richard” is a movie, not a miniseries; and part of what makes Baylin’s screenplay so effective is his knowing what to leave out as well as what to put in. The film ends, for example, with Venus’s first professional tournament, in 1994.

The Williams family lives in the city of Compton (a “King Richard” subplot involves Williams running afoul of a local gang). The Southern California youth tennis scene was very West Side and white. Presumably it still is. “You ever think about basketball?” one of those prospective coaches asks Williams. It’s a cringe-worthy moment that feels all too real. Such moments give the movie a weight rarely found in “Cinderella”- — or “Rocky”-style crowd-pleasers, which is what “King Richard” is.

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Williams is definitely the hero of “King Richard,” but the movie isn’t a valentine to him. It is a valentine to Brandy. Aunjanue Ellis (”Lovecraft Country”) doesn’t get to show off the way Smith does. Instead, she holds the movie together, which is not unlike the role Brandy Williams played in the family. “Why is it you got to ruin everybody else’s day?” she asks him. Brandy, the cause of no ruining, knows it’s a rhetorical question.

Demi Singleton, left, and Saniyya Sidney in "King Richard."
Demi Singleton, left, and Saniyya Sidney in "King Richard."Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Playing someone famous is hard. Playing someone famous when young may be even harder. You wouldn’t know it from Sidney’s and Singleton’s performances. Singleton is especially good at conveying, without overdoing, how rivalry can mingle with love in a younger sibling who’s even more talented than her talented older one. Jon Bernthal (”The Many Saints of Newark”) plays the girls’ longest-lasting, thus longest-suffering, coach. He gets to tee up the movie’s best straight line. “I think you just might have the next Michael Jordan,” his character tells Williams. “No, brother, I got the next two Michael Jordans.”

A note to Globe readers of a certain age and tennis fans of all ages: About two hours in, Williams notices a passerby (Brad Greenquist). It’s the day before 14-year-old Venus is set to play the second-ranked woman in the world. ”Hi, Bud, remember me?” Williams asks. The man does. “If your daughter wins tomorrow,” he says, “it’ll be the biggest story since Ali-Frazier.” The man wears a bow tie, blazer, and floral-pattern trousers. That’s right, he’s Bud Collins.

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★★★

KING RICHARD

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Written by Zach Baylin. Starring Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton. At Boston theaters, suburbs, and streaming on HBO Max. 144 minutes. PG-13 (some violence, strong language, a sexual reference, brief drug references)


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.