Hustle (2022)

“There’s 450 NBA players, another hundred just waiting to get called up. It’s my job to know every other great player in the world.”

Like a majority of the population, one thing that can draw a large group of diverse individuals into one space like an arena or stadium for a few hours at a time are sports and the beloved teams we cheer for, in winning seasons and losing ones, too. Depending on where you grow up, the teams you root for are imbedded in your identity, you fall in love with the players and the culture, share it with those close to you, and pass the same fandom on to the next generation. 

People will either praise you or judge you based on who you bleed for year after year, in delight or disappointment. There’s something euphoric about watching a group of athletes give every ounce of blood, sweat and tears for the ultimate goal of immortality, a championship, and celebrate it as if it’s the last thing they’ll do in life.

It’s quite beautiful, fandom. Celebrating a team’s accomplishments over the course of the season or wishing them well in the next year to win it all. As if sports weren’t dramatic enough – just watch any playoff series as the teams dwindle in number, dramatized retellings of a team or athlete in film form will only make the pride swell more as the athlete overcomes adversity and accomplishes their dream. 

For careerman Adam Sandler, sports have infused into his roles more often as his career moves into a new era. Whether it’s in Big Daddy as his Sonny has a Rangers game on, or he teaches Julian about the Jets, or in his previous dramatic role of Howard Ratner in 2019’s Uncut Gems, the degenerate gambler betting on Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics, sports is in Sandler’s DNA. Hustle doesn’t leave a lasting impression without Sandler’s grounded performance. He’s the glue that holds this generic, predictable trope filled story together. 

As an avid die-hard fan myself, whenever a sports drama comes around, diving headfirst into the story whether fully fictional, documentary, or autobiographical is something I can’t resist. A true underdog story as a dedicated, talented individual fights for what they deserve and either loses and learns or wins and achieves everything they’ve worked hard for. Just last year the incredible true stories of NFL legend Kurt Warner and the most dominate tennis players to ever walk the earth Venus and Serena Williams (more about the father Richard) left lasting impressions on the genre. A genre that is undoubtedly generic, like any other biographical film but with the right people in place and a solid story as a foundation, the genre stays fresh. 

The latest entry into the genre, Hustle, blends fictional storytelling with real life athletes and teams to deliver on its potential.  Stanley Sugarman (Adam Sandler) is an international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers looking for the missing piece to bring home championship gold. His real dream is to coach – missing his daughters last 9 birthdays is crushing to his home life despite his ability to be indispensable as a scout. Keeping him on the road is Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), 76er’s co-owner after the passing of his father Rex (Robert Duvall).

From the opening moments of Hustle, director Jeremiah Zagar captures the grit and isolation that comes with visiting these less than desirable locales to see how a potential prospect plays. Greece, China, Spain, Italy, blur by Stan while he is on autopilot, not letting the constant travel affect his skill. Quick cuts interjected with red-eye flights, fast food and late night Facetimes are all apart of Stanley’s “Hustle” to make an impact on his team. 

While Stan hustles to provide his talent to the 76er organization and to his family, he also comes across a prodigal like talent at a pick-up game in Spain. Giving Hustle more than one meaning, Stan witnesses the talent of a construction worker named Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) hustling other players by giving the impression that he has no skill.

Hustle showcases the themes of an underdog story mixed with a father / son relationship. Instantly, Sandler and Hernangómez have a dynamic relationship once the miscommunication is handled, on and off the court – while the training montage begins, Zagar puts the focus right in the action. All the discipline necessary to make the league sweats off the screen. Early morning sprints up a hill that seasoned bikers can climb in 2 minutes puts Hustle at a quick pace. Bo channels his inner Rocky Balboa slowly but steadily improving with Sandler’s Sugarman toughening him up. No topic is off limits to weed out the sensitivity. After all, basketball is a mental game as much as it is a game of skill. Bo has the raw, untapped skill, but does he have the ability to tune out other prospects like Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards)?

Who said NBA stars can’t commit to their roles? Edwards’ villainy is subtle but effective at getting in Bo’s head.

Between the action of training and dealing with a new spotlight of attention, Hustle slows down to embrace the family aspect that basketball creates. Even Stanley needs a rock to lean on like he has with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah). Though Latifah has a minor role, it’s easy to block out every one else while her charm is on full display.

Basketball has gone through many different transformations in its lifetime. Instead of being flashy, relying on style over substance, Hustle has the same spirit as the more physical era, the era of the bad boy Pistons, focusing on the fundamentals like passing, blocking, stealing, dribbling, and shooting. Full of heart, pride, compassion, and tenacity, Hustle is the rare gem that stands out among the mediocrity of Netflix originals.

Written By: Taylor Materne & Will Fetters

Directed By: Jeremiah Zagar

Music By: Dan Deacon

Cinematography: Zak Mulligan

Starring: Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah, Ben Foster, Juancho Hernangómez, Robert Duvall, Anthony Edwards

Where to Watch: Netflix

Release Date: June 3, 2022

Running Time: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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