(Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
Never back down. This is the primary motif of Adam Sandler’s new movie Hustle, which premiered on Netflix on June 3, 2022, and it’s a lesson that reverberates proudly throughout the entire movie.
Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a hardworking basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s one of Sandler’s more subdued and nuanced roles, as he mostly forgoes the bombastic and outrageous humor for which he’s typically known. Instead, Sugarman is a kind and sweet man who completely and absolutely adores his wife Teresa, played by Queen Latifa, his daughter Alex, played by Jordan Hull, and the game of basketball.
The plot of the movie centers around Sugarman’s search for the “next big thing” in basketball, so that he can finally escape the doldrums and grind of NBA scouting. Sugarman wants to be an assistant coach, but for now, Sugarman goes from one country to the next, from gym to gym all over the world, looking in vain for his ticket to the sideline. There’s a moment early in the film where it looks like Stanley is finally about to get the big break he’s been waiting his whole life for, only for his aspirations to crash back to Earth like a skydiver without a parachute.
While on a scouting trip to Spain, Sugarman happens upon a local pickup basketball game where he witnesses a phenom completely dominate the competition. After several of Stanley’s attempts to communicate with the mysterious hooper get hilariously lost in translation, Stanley is eventually able to convince this secret Spanish superstar to go to the United States for the annual pre-draft NBA Combine.
It turns out that the mystery man is named Bo Cruz, and he happens to be portrayed by current NBA player Juancho Hernangomez, who currently plays for the Utah Jazz. This is Hernangomez’s first acting credit (as far as I can tell) and he is extremely impressive. Cruz is soft-spoken and unassuming, but has a fire and tenacity that makes him easy to root for. He also appears to cry on command in one scene, which has to at least put him in the top five athlete-actor performances of all time.
Hernangomez is far from the only current or former NBA player in the film. Those who appeared include Kenny Smith, Dirk Nowitzki, Kris Middleton, Luka Dončić, Allen Iverson, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and many, many more.
(Sidenote: quick shout out to Sir Charles for his one line: "The boy needs to get to the combine," - said in the most aggressive, deadpan, I-couldn't-give-a-crap-about-this-movie manner possible).
Anthony Edwards, the #1 pick for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2020, plays the film’s primary antagonist Kermit Wilts, and like Hernangomez, he is extremely impressive in his first film credit. Despite playing a character being named after a green frog puppet, Edwards manages to play a convincingly intimidating top NBA prospect, not an easy task.
Although the film’s theme of never backing down and overcoming life’s roadblocks and pit stops is consistent and runs true throughout the movie, the movie is, really, an ode to basketball. Sandler’s and Hernangomez’s characters spend significant portions of the movie going through arduous basketball drills, each creatively designed to challenge a different aspect of Cruz’s game. These montages are some of the coolest moments of the entire film.
This brings me to another thought - this has probably the best scenes of real basketball ever in a movie. With so many NBA players littered throughout, it's not a surprise that the skill level of the actors was high, but it's nice to watch a sports movie and not have your suspension of disbelief totally broken by some actor who looks like he's never ever seen a basketball in his life, let alone picked one up and put it through a basket.
In another scene, Cruz and Sugarman team up with Dr. J to turn Cruz into an internet sensation by recording him dominating locals in one-on-one. Much like you’d expect, Cruz absolutely smothers his competition. I particularly liked this scene because, for once, it featured someone’s defensive talents over their offensive skill set - a nice change of pace for any sports movie.
In all, Hustle is a fun, feel-good movie that does a great job of demonstrating how much hard work, dedication, and persistence (and luck) it takes to reach the NBA. Hernangomez and Edwards are a revelation as actors, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them appear in many more movies over the span of their careers. Adam Sandler continues his late-career renaissance. Hustle is a perfect movie for any basketball fan, or any sports fan really. Never back down.