Rocky IV may not be the best film in the storied boxing franchise. Riddled with on-the-nose Cold War parallels and a cumbersome level of hubris, it signaled the series got too big for its britches. Though, if you’re a boxer in real life, Rocky IV is the one to watch. When not brooding over the loss of Apollo Creed to the emotionless Soviet fighting machine Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa is providing us with, not only his best training montages, but his most usable techniques.
Likewise, Hustle is a basketball movie for basketball players. Adam Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a dedicated talent scout with dreams of being a coach. Those dreams are crushed when the owner of the Philadelphia 76ers (Robert Duvall), who had all but given him a contract to be the new assistant coach, passes away. The owner’s son, Vince (Ben Foster), jealous of Stanley and his father’s relationship, blocks Stanley’s promotion.
Stanley used to dream of playing professional ball. However, a car accident in college nearly crippled his hand. He now sees himself in Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), a 22-year-old NBA hopeful who hasn’t played organized sports in 8 years because he chose to take care of his daughter and mother instead. Problem is, Bo has a questionable (yet understandable) history and now everyone who matters Stateside thinks he’s a headcase.
Meanwhile, Stanley’s hopes of ever becoming an assistant coach hinge on him finding a prolific NBA prospect. Our hero takes on the role of coach anyway as he spends many a montage training Bo. They run actual drills and hills, and he teaches his Spanish student lessons about both basketball and life with a myriad of quotes that are more than just trite aphorisms, but become useful and applicable to Bo’s life – and ours as well.
I realized 10 minutes in that Hustle was in the hands of a wise director in Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals). When Stanley discovers that Robert Duvall’s character has died he’s alone in his car and hears the news over the radio. A lesser filmmaker would have tried to make this an intimate moment, instructed Sandler to weep or pound his fist or get out the car and say “no” over and over again. Instead, Zagar just pans out, showing us his main character shrinking through the language of cinema. He trusts that by this point in the film, the audience has already become attached to Stanley and is aware of the stakes and the implications that Duvall’s death has. All we need to do is feel this character’s isolation.
Hustle doesn’t fixate itself with niceties of melodrama. Sandy and his wife (Queen Latifah) have heated discussions, but their marriage is never even close to being on the rocks. He’s missed his daughter’s birthday for “nine years runnin’,” but that never comes into play when he begins dedicating his time to a 22-year-old Spanish prospect. That’s not to say the film plays it safe either. It just finds its tension in interesting ways and simply uses all that tension to undergird the story rather than to distract or manipulate, be it the plot or the audience.
Thanks to Zagar and his frequent collaborator DP Zak Mulligan, Hustle corrects what’s wrong with so many basketball movies, and sports movies in general. In establishing a more artsy aesthetic with shaky cams and dark-tinted close-ups (aided with an indie-style script by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters) the filmmakers also bring a rawness and authenticity to the basketball drama – a genre that’s typically riddled with hyperboles and crowd-pleasers. Here, hubris never overpowers the candidness. Players talk to each other how players would actually talk. Coaches toe the line between fatherly warmth and a sailor’s brashness.
As brilliant as Zagar is behind the camera, there are times where we can’t help but wonder if this film was pressure-edited at the studio’s request to get the runtime under 2 hours (its 1 hour, 58 minutes). Certain moments seem curiously cut out, including one when Stanley and Bo should have reunited after being forced to part ways. Luckily, the cursoriness somehow fits with the frank tone elsewhere.
Similar to Rocky IV, Hustle has a lot of montages. For diehard basketball fans, these sequences are inherently entertaining anyway, so it won’t matter. But for outsiders, they’re entertaining because Sandler is given the freedom to talk through them and adlib a little.
If Uncut Gems showed everyone what Adam Sandler could do under the knife of masterful editing and stage direction, Hustle once again proves the actor is a bona fide artist even when given a longer rope. He’s so natural here, so tapped into the authenticity of humanity, always knowing exactly how to handle each situation, and with complete emotional control. I was already amazed by him in the Safdie brothers movie, but this feat might be more impressive.
Hustle is a basketball movie that teaches and entertains, all while sporting a who’s who of the NBA’s past, present, and adjacent. Granular in its approach to the sport itself, the film will appeal to hoop-heads more than anyone else; former high school ball players whose dreams of the NBA turned into dreams of scouting prospects or coaching, even if it’s just from the comfort of our own couch. If Hoop Dreams or Space Jam convey a love for the game that continues to call us back to the court, Hustle explores a viewpoint of someone who loves it just the same.