One of the true joys of watching sports is the realization that anything on any given day is possible. Despite decades upon decades of professionals playing games, we hear on a regular basis about events and plays unfolding that either haven’t taken place in decades, or have never happened before at all. There are no sure things or set narratives; the same match-up can be played 100 times and get 100 different outcomes. That particular thrill can be elating or devastating depending on team loyalties and fanhoods, but it’s always fascinating.
Sports movies, on the other hand, can be frustrating for the exact opposite reason. The excitement and randomness of professional athletics gets easily lost in filmmakers’ attempts to create structured stories with proper drama and pacing, and the “I’ve never seen that before!” qualities of the subject matter can get lost in favor of the generic and familiar. There are rare titles in the genre that make bold and exciting moves that successfully upend expectations, but it often feels like one of those is often matched by 20 tales of scrappy underdogs who train hard to defy impossible odds and hardship so that they can win the big championship.
Jeremiah Zagar’s Hustle is a film that fits firmly in the latter category. It has original story elements, but it’s also satisfied executing plotting and arcs that are recognizable to all those who are even only vaguely acquainted with sports movies. Even when you think that it may be getting ready to surprise you, it isn’t. As rote and tame as the new Netflix release is, however, it’s also a feature that has just enough grit and spunk to make it at least an entertaining diversion – with Adam Sandler delivering a performance that effectively trades his traditional brand of ridiculous and silly for fun and compelling.
Sandler stars in Hustle as Stanley Sugarman, a veteran scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has just about reached the end of his rope with his job. As much as he loves basketball, he has spent nearly a decade flying around the world to try and find the next great international player, and he is tired of missing out on time with his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah), and teenage daughter (Jordan Hull). Fortunately, everything seems like it is going to be fixed when the owner of the team, Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), makes the call to promote Stanley as the new assistant coach… but then everything goes straight to hell when Rex unexpectedly dies and leaves control of the team to his son, Vince (Ben Foster).
Not being a Stanley fan, Vince makes the call to demote the assistant coach back to being a scout – telling him that the 76ers need a “missing piece,” and that he will be assistant coach again if he can find the team the key player they need. With no real choice, the protagonist once again packs his bags and gets on a plane to Spain.
With time to kill, Stanley goes to shoot some hoops at a local court, and it’s while there that he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), an exceptional athlete playing in construction boots and hustling locals. The 76ers scout is insistent on trying to get Bo into professional basketball, and while Vince turns down the offer to sign the 22-year-old potential star, Stanley makes the call to bring the kid to the United States anyway and get him ready for the hyper-competitive NBA Draft Combine.
Hustle manages to overcome its bland story with the help of engaging and compelling characters.
Hustle’s script, written by Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, doesn’t provide much more than the Standard Sports Movie journey for Stanley and Bo to traverse, as the narrative uses every genre trope available to it in order to keep things flowing – from the traditional training montages, to the speeches about mental strength matching physical strength, to the ubiquitous presence of a trash-talking rival (played by Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards) in every key moment of competition. As these bits play out, one is reminded of all of the other films that have used similar tools, and yet, it’s never boring.
This is primarily a credit to the direction and the characters. Jeremiah Zagar’s sequences on the court play like action scenes, and it’s frequently dazzling to watch the athletic prowess that the players are able to show off (an obvious benefit of getting real NBA talent to both star and cameo). The editing is sometimes too quick for its own good, but the cinematography is creative and compelling in its ability to capture the excellence in the physical performances.
Reminiscent as it may be of a hundred coach/star player bonds we’ve seen in the last century, the dynamic between Stanley Sugarman and Bo Cruz is also a big win. Their individual likability keeps you invested in their personal stakes, and they demonstrate matching passion that makes them a great pair, compelling you to want to see them triumph together.
Adam Sandler delivers another impressive dramatic performance, while also getting some laughs.
For his part, Adam Sandler demonstrates actual gravitas with his turn – which is a sentence that I never thought I’d write, but it’s the reality. This isn’t a Sandler sports comedy a la The Waterboy; it’s his opportunity to demonstrate a personal love for and knowledge about the game of basketball, and that’s what really drives the best parts of Hustle. He still has jokes and generates a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, but what’s most excellent about the work is just its authenticity. Also given a dramatic backstory of lost opportunity, it’s easily one of Sandler’s most well-rounded characters and performances.
The successes of Hustle are funny to consider in the wake of 2019’s Uncut Gems – which really couldn’t be a more different cinematic experience than the Netflix release, but also prominently features basketball as a key element of its plotting. Is it a sign that Adam Sandler does his best work when he’s making a movie relating to the game, and that it should dictate all of his career choices moving forward? That’s perhaps too strong a takeaway from the two titles, but I may be a little extra excited for any future projects he makes related to the sport.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.