Whether it's because he has reached a saturation point with goofy comedies, or because he's too old to lead a romantic comedy, in the past few years, Adam Sandler has turned to more mature, dramatic roles. If you've seen his ventures into indie films like Punch-Drunk Love (2002), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) or more recently Uncut Gems (2019), you'll notice that Sandler has a dramatic side to him that's surprisingly impressive. Now Sandler's back with another dramatic turn in Hustle, a Netflix sports drama where he plays a basketball scout looking for the next great player. Hustle feels like Jerry Maguire meets Rocky. It is a heartfelt, uplifting underdog movie that also serves as a love letter to the NBA.
In Hustle, Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. He's relatively successful at what he does, but the constant travelling takes a toll on him especially since it keeps him from his family. Stanley has a noble goal in wanting to become the next coach for the 76ers. While stuck on the road looking for the next unknown talent, his search leads to Spain where he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), an incredibly talented street ballplayer with a troubled past. Stanley and Bo connect on and off the court with their passion for the game and as loving family men who want to prove they can win in basketball and in life.
As a sports film, it is well made and it was great to see so much attention to detail with how the world of basketball was portrayed. As someone who knows nothing much about the sport, I was impressed with how gruelling trials are, how greedy NBA businessmen are, and how cruel the mind games are that basketball players use on others. The competitive basketball sequences, whether it be on the streets or on the court, are very well choreographed, intense and exciting. The training montages are enjoyable because they show the progression to superstardom while emphasising the grind that Bo Cruz has to endure if he wants to make it to the NBA. I don't think you need to be a basketball or even a sports fan to get invested in the story. Because very much like Rocky, Hustle is a fairly simple and familiar story of an underdog fighting their way to be noticed and to succeed. There's also a redemption story that's playing out subtly, realistically and touchingly.
This is by far one of Sandler's best performances in recent years as he perfectly balances the demeanour of an every man who's both charming and easygoing, and at the same time obsessed with chasing his dream in spite of the obstacles he faces. He doesn't go overboard with drama, but is still able to infuse his dry and sarcastic humour within the drama, proving that he's not just a one-dimensional comedy star who can't move past his roots. Real life NBA player Hernangómez plays Bo Cruz and I love the chemistry between him and Sugarman. Their relationship in the story builds beyond scouting, but something definitely more akin to father and son. Their dynamic here feels genuine as they train and work towards getting Cruz picked up by an NBA team.
Juancho Hernangómez as Bo Cruz, and Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugerman. (Photos: Netflix Thailand)
There are a couple of supporting characters in this that really add some great feeling and emotion to the story, especially Queen Latifah playing Sugerman's wife Teresa. Their banter is effective and despite some of the setbacks in their personal lives, they're still very supportive of one another. There are so many NBA superstar cameos in this film, including former players Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson and Kenny Smith, as well as current players including Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry. While in some sports movies, these cameos come off as gimmicky, in Hustle these appearances are ingrained as part of the film's DNA from the get go.
The movie ends suddenly, leaving the viewer to process what actually happened. However, it's still inspirational to an extent. Overall, Hustle may not necessarily be a wholly perfect sports movie and there are some predictable moments, but it doesn't detract from the wonderful emotion that rises up through the narrative. If you're a big fan of basketball or sports in general, and you're looking for a movie that strikes a good balance between being funny and dramatic, you should definitely check this one out.
- Starring Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Queen Latifah
- Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
- Now streaming on Netflix