Hustle Synopsis: Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler), a former college basketball player turned basketball scout, discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a phenomenal street ball player, while in Spain and sees the prospect as his opportunity to get back into the NBA.
A down-on-his-luck NBA scout and an overlooked prospect work to conquer the odds stacked against them in Hustle. Readers of my past work already know I am a huge fan of sports and its different interpretations in media. The intense passions and unrelenting commitment featured in athletics often intersect with life’s unique challenges, with sports movies offering a fitting canvas for both facets to receive exploration.
Unfortunately, sports film seems to be a decaying subgenre. Sports movies once populated multiplexes with winning crowdpleasers (Field of Dreams) and analytical deep-dives (Any Given Sunday). Today, fewer studios in the modern Hollywood ecosystem seem interested in greenlighting sports narratives. The features that eventually reach audiences offer few variations from the formula’s core tenants (last year’s National Champions and American Underdog are some of the few to crack the tricky code).
The subgenre’s downward trend is part of what makes Hustle a much-needed breath of fresh air. Combining crowdpleasing formula with a knowledgable descent into basketball culture, Hustle scores a winning balance act.
Some films feature their sport without a genuine understanding of its appeals. Fortunately, every aspect of Hustle feels ingrained in the textures of basketball’s grit and grind experience. Director Jeremiah Zagar is one of the few craftsmen to reflect the sport’s electric energy onscreen, utilizing a flurry of dynamic movements and intimate framing choices to capture the fast-paced action onscreen. Every soaring dunk and swishing three-pointer lands with the thrilling exuberance it should. Zagar and Cinematographer Zak Mulligan deserve props for heightening basketball energy into a captivating display of athletic theater (I loved their use of long takes to display the daunting walk down the tunnel before a big game).
Hustle understands the sport’s macro culture through its different lenses. Stanley and Bo each endure a daily grind to elevate into the pantheon of NBA stardom, ultimately motivated by their undying love of hoops in every step of their journey. Screenwriters Will Fetters and Taylor Materne wisely focus on the grueling day-to-day process over a highlight reel of high-flying moments, showcasing more of the grueling process rather than the enthralling final product on display in pro basketball.
While the duo utilizes familiar devices, like training montages and affectionate speeches, each operates as intelligently extensions of the sport’s time-honored facets. Fetters and Materne thankfully put enough effort into elevating the tried and true trademarks into their own distinct exploration of the athletic experience. Even when the material treads familiar territory, Hustle does so with grace and genuine understanding of its subjects. I also applaud both writers for occasionally sinking their teeth into NBA culture, whether it be the overbearing spotlight of media scrutiny or the corrupt culture of nepotism-driven ownership groups.
A skilled cast also elevates the final product. Adam Sandler’s deft abilities as a dramatic actor are on display in full force as Stanley. Embodying the caring intimacy and intense energy behind a man whose life is devoted to basketball, Sandler delivers a textured performance that still displays the actor’s affable charisma. NBA player Juancho Hernangomez makes an impressive acting debut as a basketball prospect fighting to make a better life for his family, while Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, and NBA star Anthony Edwards make strong impressions in familiar roles (Edwards is a menace in the best possible sense as a trash-talking hooper).
Hustle throws down an emphatic slam-dunk for the sports movie subgenre. The film serves as a prime example of what can be accomplished when creative teams tread familiar water with inspired deviations.
Hustle is now playing on Netflix.
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