Hustle movie review: Adam Sandler is a slam dunk in touching rags-to-riches basketball story

Netflix original, Hustle, tells the tale of a washed-out basketball player turned basketball scout, Stanley Sugerman, played by Adam Sandler, as he chances upon the next big potential NBA star in Spain and places his money on his success.

Real-life basketball player Juancho Hernangomez plays the towering Bo Cruz, the Spanish talent that catches Sugarman’s eager eyes. After an impressive display of his skill in a street match in Spain, Cruz leaves his mother, his daughter and his construction job behind for a chance to hit it big in the States as an NBA star.

Written by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, the film checks most markers for the sports film tropes it incorporates within the narrative. A penniless, undiscovered talent, the injured player-turned father / coach figure, an inspiring training montage and a redemptive climax.

To top it all off, the film takes place in Philadelphia, home to one of the most popular sporting characters in cinematic history, Rocky Balboa himself. The city, its people and the passionate and competitive culture surrounding their sports is beautifully captured in director Jerimiah Zagar’s vision.

The film in many ways mirrors Rocky, in the ‘Italian Stallion’s’ rise to fame. Of the many challenges he faces, Cruz comes head-to-head with the trash-talking Kermit Wiltz, another rising star, played by professional basketballer Anthony Edwards. Wiltz serves as the Apollo Creed to Cruz’s Balboa, as they clash time and again on the court.

However, the real MVP of the film is Sandler’s Sugarman – a persistent, motivating coach to Cruz. As Sugarman gets sacked from his job and faces pressure from family and friends for backing the Spaniard, Sandler’s warm, charming persona grounds the story, in one of the finest performances by the actor since 2019’s Uncut Gems.

While the tackiness in certain crude jokes brings down the quality of the script, the film makes up for it in really poignant scenes of ‘coachly’ motivation. Sandler’s unflinching resolve to get the young talent into the big leagues is through a variety of Spanish profanities, a couple fat-jokes at his expense and an obsession to run up a particular hill enough to make Kate Bush envious.

The physical prowess of every player as they execute a range of gravity-defying dunks and swats is on full display, owing to some fantastic editing. The on-court sequences are intricately cut between a shuffling of Nike’s on the hard maple floor and the intensity behind every pair of darting eyes as they plan out the next play.

Music composer Dan Deacon’s score for the film builds up each scene, each move and each shot to a satisfying summit. His gorgeous neon-like piano tones aptly capture the feelings behind Sugarman’s teary-eyed glance around a packed stadium in one of the best original scores this year has had to offer thus far.

Basketball legends including Julius “Dr J” Erving, Bob Marjanovic, Trae Young and Jordan Clarkson, amongst many more play themselves in a series of NBA-fan-pleasing cameos over the span of the film. Even the star-studded line-up however is overshadowed by the Sandler-Hernangomez bromance, the stumpy coach subtly bringing out the best in the gentle giant.

And although it probably won’t go down as a sports movie cult classic, Hustle is a heartwarming story of perseverance and determination, one that will be remembered for Sandler’s captivating performance and a staunch reminder of his ability outside the realm of comedy.

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