Straight, "no chaser" is how NBA agent Ray Burke (Andre Holland) likes his news in "High Flying Bird," and the same could be said for the cinematic preferences of director Steven Soderbergh, whose stripped-down latest is a fleet-footed fast break of a movie.
Burke is a slick, fast-talking agent who, months into a lockout, is carrying out a scheme of mysterious objectives. Soderbergh and McCraney promptly submerge us in a soliloquy of Burke's at a Manhattan restaurant meeting with his star client, the recent No. 1 pick of the draft, Erik Scott (newcomer Melvin Gregg). He speaks of ball as something sacred and pure and hints at the larger powers that control the game with a bravado only slightly undercut when his credit card is rejected. Burke pays in cash, hands Scott an envelope with something he calls "a bible" in it, and huffs it down the street.
It's a breathless start to a breathless movie. It pauses only for Burke, after the lunch, to walk downtown while Richie Havens plays. What we come to gather is that Burke is trying to take control of his own destiny and, for a moment at least, hold the game in his hands. "High Flying Bird" is a heady movie, full of political thought about sport, entertainment, race and power. Rather than float on production value, it sustains itself on the tension of ideas, exchanged rapid-fire in gleaming office towers.
There is almost no basketball in "High Flying Bird," nor are there any of the normal sports-movie clichés. It's concerned with "the game on top of the game," as the wise Bronx coach Spencer (Bill Duke) calls the system imposed on basketball, one controlled mainly by white billionaires.
What Burke has in mind is disruption and, maybe, a moment of freedom for the entertainers in the middle from the powers that be above.
A handful of insiders contribute wittingly or unwittingly to his plan, among them Burke's former protégé Sam (Zazie Beetz) and Emera Umber (Jeryl Prescott), the mother of Scott's rival, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley). Burke subtly manipulates him into an impromptu one-on-one match that immediately goes viral.
For a movie full of characters who sincerely espouse the beauty of basketball, "High Flying Bird" could use more of the sport. I wish the filmmaking more obviously shared its characters' affection for the game, not just their politics.
AP Review: 3 stars out of 4
Not rated, but contains mature language. Running time: 90 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix.