For those who thought Adam Sandler forgot how to make good movies (Uncut Gems, here’s looking at you), I give you Hustle, now on Netflix. Don’t confuse this one with the very poor The Hustle (2019) starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. This is such a fine sports film that it persuaded me to watch a bit of the NBA Finals, which I hadn’t done in years. WARNING: Hustle earns its R-rating with bad language, insults, and trash talk. Still, if you follow basketball, its nothing you haven’t heard before. But, for your kids who love the NBA, you might want to make sure its age-appropriate for them.
Rare is a terrific sports movie. Rarer still is a sports movie the critics like. Besides its solid 7.4/10 IMDb score, Hustle earns a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating. This is the wise-cracking, constant-jabbering, underdog-loving Adam Sandler we know and love. Better yet, the director uses NBA players as actors rather than actors as NBA players. This ain’t no White Men Can’t Jump basketball. Stanley Sugarman lives and breathes basketball. For thirty years, he’s given his life to the sport, primarily as a scout for international talent. Now, he gets his chance to coach, to get off the road and sit on the bench. Just as suddenly, his main benefactor, team owner Rex Merrick dies. “Valuable as a coach, indispensable as a scout,” new boss Vince Merrick orders him overseas once again. I give this story of loyalty, trust, family, and love 4.0 Gavels.
Landing in Mallorca, Spain, his prospect injured and unable to play, Sugarman ventures onto a neighborhood pickup game. He spots 6’9″ Bo Cruz dominating while wearing construction boots. Convinced that Cruz has the tools to make it in the NBA, Sugarman brings him to the US against Vince Merrick’s explicit directions. A tryout does not go well, nor does a confrontation between Sugarman and Merrick. Out of a job, Sugarman has six week to Hustle and get Cruz into the NBA Draft Combine.
Hustle does not lack for talent. Queen Latifah (Sugarman’s wife), Robert Duvall (Rex Merrick), Ben Foster (Vince Merrick), and a host of present and former NBA players appear. Juancho Hernangomez, now playing for the Utah Jazz, stars as Bo Cruz, aka the Cruz Missile, aka the Boa, aka the player who will Cruz-ify you. For a novice actor, he goes from sad sack to dazzling smile rather easily. The villain is played by Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards as Kermit Wilts. Trash-talking comes easily to this man.
Since Sugarman is an employee of the the Philadelphia 76ers, what former player is a must-see? If you said Dr. J (Julius Erving, now age 72), you show your age. Charles Barkley also appears. In this Rocky-type film, the theme of Hustle is “Never Back Down.”
“Sandler plays Stanley with an inner sadness, a blend of weariness and resilience, and a stubborn faith in the game that leaves you moved, stoked, and utterly convinced.” Variety
“It’s one of the most textured and affectionate films about basketball that’s come along in a long time.” Associated Press
“Coaching you was the best month of my life,” Sugarman tells Bo. Feel the love of the man and the game in that quote. Hustle is not just for the sports fan.