It’s the Usual Drill for Sports movies: Pit a kid, in this case high-school hoop star Kyle Lee Watson (Duane Martin), against the forces of good and evil. On the side of the angels are Kyle’s mom (Tonya Pinkins) and Shep (Leon), a security guard who barely survived a similar trial by fire. Giving the devil his due is Birdie (Tupac Shakur), Shep’s drug-dealer brother. Birdie tempts Kyle with women and gifts to lure him into brutal pickup-game tournaments on which Birdie gambles heavily. It’s formula stuff, but the dynamite court action set on the streets of Harlem gets the adrenalin pumping.
Co-writer and first-time director Jeff Pollack, one of the co-producers of TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, leans heavily on a fierce soundtrack featuring Lord G. SWV and Snoop Doggy Dogg. But the actors are the film’s real juice. Martin is a find, letting his emotions rip as Birdie threatens his recruiting chances at Georgetown University. In contrast, Leon (Cool Runnings) reins in Shep’s tensions tight enough to snap.
Still, it’s Shakur who steals the show. The rapper’s offscreen legal problems are well known, but there’s no denying his power as an actor. Following a gentle turn in Poetic Justice as Janet Jackson’s lover, Shakur creates in Birdie a gleaming portrait of seductive evil. He’s as dangerous as the asphalt game that ends Above the Rim with a sustained roar of thunderous hoop action.