September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, Josh Hartnett

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Basketball wasn’t around during William Shakespeare’s time, but that doesn’t keep the Bard from scoring a slam dunk with this hoop-centric, contemporary teen version of Othello. The setting (an American high school) and the language (now plainspoken English) have been modernized, but the plot remains the same: A man heeds lies about his beloved told to him by another man and begins to doubt her, with grievous consequences. The ending is still heartbreakingly, bloodily brutal.

Odin James (Phifer) is the Othello stand-in here. Nicknamed O, he’s a gifted basketball player and the only African-American student at a prestigious prep school in the South. His Desdemona is longtime steady Desi (Stiles), a popular fellow classmate whose father (John Heard) is the dean of students. The scheming Iago is O’s best friend and teammate Hugo (Hartnett), who maneuvers Odin into thinking that Desi is cheating on him. Hugo’s motivation? He is jealous of O’s feats on the court and the high regard in which Odin is held by their basketball coach (Martin Sheen), who is also Hugo’s father.

Deftly directed by Tim Blake Nelson (Eye of God) and adapted by Brad Kaaya, O succeeds as a thoughtful drama dealing with contemporary issues of race, sex and even performance-enhancing steroids (Hugo is covertly taking them), and as a provocative reinterpretation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Phifer ably shows the corrosive effects of jealousy, while Stiles demonstrates yet again the glowing naturalness that makes her one of today’s most appealing young stars. Hartnett, in O’s trickiest role, manages to show the hurt behind his villainy. (R)

Bottom Line: Will’s got game

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