Sports fans love a good underdog story, especially with the medium of film — from the misfit teams of The Big Green and Little Giants to rugged club-fighter turned champion in the Rocky series. Hustle has similar Philadelphia DNA as it’s based around long-time NBA scout Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) as he works for the Sixers traveling to every part of the globe looking for the next star. But Stanley is working to the bone to find the next potential NBA star; he dreams of becoming an assistant coach. Hustle examines thematic devices seen in other films, like the cost of determination, arising from failure, and not falling into the mistakes of the past. However, it is ultimately the heart of the performances that make Hustle more than a ragged-to-hoop dream wishes clone.
Director Jeremiah Zagar lends authenticity to this story, including past and present NBA players like Julius Irving and Kenny Smith and a Philadelphia-led soundtrack with Beanie Siegel and Freeway songs. A great family unit surrounds Stanley his job often pulls him away with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Teresa often serves as an encouraging voice for Stanley to follow his dream, no matter what it takes. The Sixers organization has a family ownership dynamic, which sees cocky owner-in-waiting Vince Merrick (Ben Foster) clash with many talent assessments. Vince’s father, Rex (Robert Duvall), has a father-figure-like affinity for Stanley and gives fulfills his dream.
Ah, but, as fate would have it, Rex suddenly passes away. At the behest of new owner Vince, Stanley has to get back on the scouting trail to find a new star. While a lot of leads dry up, Stanley goes to Spain, where he witnesses the raw talent of Bo Cruz (played by the Utah Jazz’s Juancho Hernangómez). Bo has a complicated past of his own — his dad left him when he was very young, and Bo uses basketball as a coping mechanism. Stanley can see the untapped potential inside him to make it to the big time, but co-writers Taylor Materne, and Will Fetters construct the story in a way that doesn’t feel Stanley is trying to exploit Bo. Sure, Stanley has the bright-light moment he wants for himself, but Hustle morphs him into a Mickey-like training character for Rocky. If Stanley gets the goal, it will be by helping Bo reach his own.
The life of a scout doesn’t seem glamorous at all, but the acting of Sandler makes everything seem alive and prosperous. He interjects humor at the right moments that feels familiar to his style and fits seamlessly into the story. Queen Latifah also provides a great middle, where she both plays off Sandler’s jokes and is a needed voice of reason. In his first acting role, Hernangómez encapsulates an athlete who has to struggle and finds his temperament to achieve something he doesn’t think he’s worthy of. Sandler and Hernangómez have a father-son relationship that can be hilarious given the cultural barriers and heartfelt and poignant given what they have to go through together.
Some plot threads could have been explored more, like Stanley’s relationship with his daughter and his being away so much. However, Hustle doesn’t elect to become Rocky IV, where the child resents their sports legend, dad, because of neglect. Zagar makes Alex’s aspiring film skills a part of the plot as an integral part of Stanley and Bo’s journey. With any sports movie, there has to be an antagonist. Bo often has to duel against top prospect Kermit Wilts (played by Minnesota Timberwolves player Anthony Edwards) when it isn’t himself. Kermit gets into Bo’s head with trash talk, early and often — which ties into Bo’s past in a way that serves as a barrier for him and his mentor to go through.
Hustle includes a lot of basketball action geared towards the grittier side of combines, open runs, and practices. The film’s tie-ins rely on previous basketball knowledge that veteran fans will recognize. A training montage or two pops up as the status quo, with many sports films before it. What makes Hustle stand out is its focus is just as much off the court as it is on — Sandler draws you to his character as an older man who is found talent all his life, but realizes he’s long ignored the magic inside himself.
Photo Credit: Netflix