We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Danielle Gardner doesn’t care much for formalities. She throws the audience directly into a bubbling cauldron of action, athletics, shoving matches, familial tenderness, high hopes, and hanging out in the middle of a scorching Brooklyn summer, and figures the explanations will sort themselves out. This is Bed-Stuy, 1993, the center of—not the, but definitely a—basketball universe; trophies are the least of what’s on the line.

Gardner’s documentary Soul in the Hole follows the fortunes of Kenny’s Kings as they compete with other local outfits in a series of faceoffs that climaxes with the “Soul in the Hole” championship game. In its kinetic, intense way, the movie makes a clear case for the ability of one man to make a difference. But far more interesting than this incontrovertible yet stale observation is the offhand addendum that that man doesn’t have to be a saint or a genius. Kenny Jones, the Kings’ unpaid coach, is volatile, foul-mouthed, usually but not always employed, and willing to call one of his charges “you piece of shit” if he needs to or forgets not to. He’s also a beacon in the boys’ lives, sometimes the only constant, and his dedication to showing them success and a good time is most vivid in his heartbreaking relationship with the team’s star point guard, Ed “Booger” Smith.

Booger is an athlete touched by the gods—his teammates may be the best Brooklyn has to offer (some of them have gone on to successful college careers), but everything human looks a little hesitant when Booger is zigging across the court; an admirer describes him as a “gremlin.” Opaque and mischievous, Booger gives up nothing, not to Jones (in our presence, anyway) and not to the camera of a woman who followed the Kings for a year before she even started filming. He says once that either playing ball or dealing drugs will earn him his Lexus; Booger never again expresses a desire for something. No one seems to know the facts, but apparently he left his mother’s house one day when he was 15 and has been living with Jones and his wife Ronnet ever since.

The Joneses love their surrogate son but they let him run free, and he pays them back by straying to the projects (the most revealing footage shows him doing aimless rounds on his bicycle), shooting dice, doing a little dealing and shoplifting, and making championship magic on the asphalt courts. A neighborhood talker astutely casts Booger as a commodity, saying if he were on sale he’d be flying off the shelves—”Look, they got Booger Smith in a can! Limit five.” He’s a big star in Brooklyn, but he’s got the kind of talent that will grow to fit the size of any pond. Unfortunately, he’s attracted to quicksand.

Booger’s fate is a mystery throughout this absorbing film—he could end up getting killed, killing himself, going to college, going straight to the NBA, returning to the streets, or giving it all up to hibernate and reminisce. The Kings’ fate is more assured—throughout this summer, at least, they are unstoppable, winning with seeming effortlessness. They couldn’t lose if they tried, and they sort of do try, showing up almost fatally late for a playoff game as Jones weeps and Booger, his erstwhile irresponsible child, does the comforting.

Soul in the Hole is as playful and rough as its energetic, young-old subjects—it’s also something of a psych-out, since the audience is casually assigned to care about the Kings. Theirs is the moment of pregame pep (“One, two, three: Work hard!”) we witness before the first game, so by default they must be the heroes. But as a Queens coach said, not unkindly, to Time Out magazine, “I’ve got a thousand kids like that.” It’s true—Gardner hopes this film is the first in a series. That means that Booger Smith, legendary in his way, isn’t necessarily the brightest basketball light in the street tourneys. And that means that Soul in the Hole’s triumph isn’t bringing us Booger’s story but the story of street sports, street smarts, bluster, grace, unconditional love, and hard work. There isn’t always someone on hand to record so lovingly and unflinchingly the countless successes, such as the happy fates of some of Kenny’s Kings, or the countless lights that fall dark, unobserved.

He may be just another successful San Francisco investment banker, making the expected faux-rueful joke about the uselessness of his task—moving money around—but Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) wants to hang onto what he’s got: the magnificent house, the loaded Beemer, the $2,000 shoes. He finds power a useful insulator—he’s so detached that it’s his secretary who thanks the uppity assistant who dares wish him a happy birthday.

Intent on shaking him out of this sheltered existence, his ne’er-do-well younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a birthday present, an invitation to initiate a game. No one can (or will) tell Nicholas what this game is about, or how to play his part in it, but overnight his ordered, expensive world is overturned. He finds a scary clown doll on his driveway, mysterious keys start showing up, Daniel Schorr insults him from his TV screen, bums die in his path, and he’s having to seriously consider advice like, “I think if we drop from here, the garbage will break our fall.” Whoever’s in control of the game evidently has resources so immense that a bit player like Nicholas can’t even imagine them.

Hollywood players, more than finance guys, more than politicians even, are obsessed with the possibility that their fleeting, specialized version of success may be ephemeral. Entertainment lore is rife with stories of houses, cars, and wives lost (in that order), and, worse, tales of access shut down—calls not taken, faces unrecognized, messages unanswered. (These legends are comforting as well as cautionary; the more other guys that happens to, the better your odds are of surviving.) With typical selfishness and insularity, industry toilers feel that they’ve got more to lose than us common folks with our pitiful little houses, cars, and wives; they’re always asking themselves how to salvage what’s left after their borrowed trappings are repossessed. The screenwriters behind The Game also wrote The Net—it’s quite likely that John Brancato and Michael Ferris have, um, identity issues.

But the little people’s fears are greater, because they don’t depend on the ability to buy stuff and make expensive friends, and it’s these fears that The Game (and Blade Runner and many spy novels) exploits: What if everyone you knew were a plant, a shill, a hiree? What if you had to suspect every waitress, gas jockey, subway busker, telephone operator, and cabdriver of being in on a conspiracy to mess with your mind? Not to mention your own family, ex-wife, lawyer, housemaid, colleagues, and any guy who happens to bump into you on the street. It’s a wonderfully paranoid fantasy, at once totally frightening and satisfyingly solipsistic—this is all here for me.

David Fincher (Seven) directs with great élan; the movie is long but fast and absorbing, and it’s got the funny-creepy tone of a grown-up Arachnophobia, where whatever’s around the next corner is sure to be scarier than what was around the one we just turned. Douglas is still so hesitant an actor that he needs to hum idly while doing “business” alone, but otherwise he makes a very convincing power guy on the brink. The twists and turns accelerate near the end, until you’re so addled and wiped out from being convinced the game is one thing and then another that at the final frame, the story hasn’t bothered to justify itself.

The big question of why still hovers around the plot, and makes a bit of a hash of what came before. But by that time, The Game has done to the audience much of what the game does to Van Orton, and it’s both a relief and a disappointment to have stumbled on the exit from this thrilling, dizzying hall of mirrors.CP