'Hustle' Is a Slam Dunk from Adam Sandler

Directed by Jeremiah Zagar

Starring Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Queen Latifah, Robert Duvall, Ben Foster, Jordan Hull

Photo: Scott Yamano / Netflix

BY Vish KhannaPublished Jun 6, 2022

With a breakout performance by NBA player Juancho Hernangómez and a dynamic and nuanced one by Adam Sandler, Hustle is a compelling and well-made ode to basketball, the human spirit, and, in many ways, the first Rocky film.

Director Jeremiah Zagar must be commended for the brilliant and vibrant manner in which he has brought the sport of basketball to the screen. By way of clever cinematography and perfectly paced editing, the sports and workout sequences here are immersive, visceral and suspenseful. The fact that so many NBA players and key figures participate here, both as themselves or as characters, also gives the film a heightened sense of realism.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a hard-done-by scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, whose job entails searching the entire planet for prospective players. Weighed down by junk food and jet lag, Sugerman floats in and out of his family's life, which, despite the warm love and support of his wife and daughter (played by Queen Latifah and Jordan Hull, respectively), is making him increasingly embittered about his lot in life.

While Sugerman is respected by the team's owner, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), his latest scouting report puts him at odds with Merrick's son, team exec Vince (Ben Foster). Though Rex promotes Sugerman to assistant coach, which would eliminate all of his worldwide travel, a plot development places Vince in charge of the organization and he promptly demotes Sugerman back to scouting, promising to reinstate him if he secures the team a talented, unknown player from overseas.

On a trip to Spain that looks like it might've been a waste of time, Sugerman stumbles upon a street game where Hernangómez's Bo Cruz, a centre-sized power forward, blows his mind with his rough but clearly dominant skills. After establishing contact, he learns that Cruz is a single dad who works construction to support his daughter and mother, and instantly obsesses about making a positive difference in the Cruz family by getting Bo into the NBA.

Of course, myriad obstacles and interpersonal tensions ensue and the drama of the story is punctuated by glorious triumphs and frustrating setbacks (and a number of funny jokes). Sugerman stands up for himself and his player, pushing Cruz to tremendous lengths to get himself physically and mentally prepared for NBA gamesmanship.

Set in Philadelphia, the rags-to-riches machismo and martyr/hero narrative about an athlete and his loyal coach, using physicality and intellect to will their families out of poverty and prove haters wrong, makes the connection to Rocky obvious. Hustle can't help but reference Sylvester Stallone's landmark film, somewhat subtly with its various training montages and, at one point, overtly. But, as a modern and youthful take on a more hip and universally beloved sport, it's a film that feels fresh and noble in its own way, and makes another case for Sandler's gifted range as a charming, dramatic leading man.

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