Adam Sandler's career has seen many ups and many downs, but, undoubtedly, sports movies have been where he's fared best.
From an aggressive alligator-killing golfer in Happy Gilmore to a bumbling momma’s boy linebacker with a gift for a knockout tackle in The Waterboy, the Adam Sandler sports movie typically involves the divisive comedian giving in and embracing his most madcap, manchild impulses and striking gold at the box office.
Yet having received unlikely Oscar buzz for his antiheroic turn in Uncut Gems, the former Saturday Night Live regular appears to have realised he can live out his sporting fantasies while also playing it straight. And does so in Hustle, which launches on Netflix today (June 8).
Unlike Uncut Gems, which induced anxiety in just about everyone who watched it as Sandler’s skeevy jeweller gambled his entire fortune, and essentially his life, on the result of an NBA game, Hustle is more formulaic, but still far removed from Sandler's usual low-hanging shtick and shows that the star is using his $250 Netflix megadeal to do some interesting things.
Every day I'm hustling...
Hustle sees Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a scout for NBA team the Philadelphia 76ers who has spent decades trotting the globe in search of basketball's next best thing, much to the detriment of his family life with wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker teen Alex (Jordan Hull). “I haven’t been home on my daughter’s birthday for nine years” he admits in one of the movie’s most heartfelt scenes.
But his days of generic hotel rooms and fast food look set to be rewarded when team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) promises his loyal servant the assistant coach promotion he’s always dreamed of. Unfortunately, within a few days Stanley is attending his mentor’s funeral. And the heir to the franchise isn’t exactly as approving.
In fact, new boss Vince (Ben Foster in an entertaining mix of entitled frat boy and dapper country gent) immediately reneges on his dad’s offer, instead dangling it on the proviso Stanley first discovers the secret weapon that will help the 76ers lift some silverware.
To do this, Stanley is sent on a trip to Spain where the talent spotter stumbles across possible game-changer Bo Cruz, albeit on the streets rather than the professional court. And despite accidentally coming onto him during a lost-in-translation ambush, Stanley manages to convince the heavily tattooed, 6ft 9in amateur he can make him a star.
Hustle is one of classic those rags-to-riches underdog tales, with real-life Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez playing the construction worker who suddenly gets the chance to fulfil his fading hoop dream. Even Sandler himself has acknowledged it’s “very much a Rocky story,” something reiterated by the countless training montages: instead of sprinting up hundreds of steps, Bo is forced to run downtown Philly’s most vertical roads in the ungodly hours.
Sandler acquits himself well as the film’s answer to unorthodox boxing trainer Mickey. Those averse to his signature yells will be pleased to know he only really raises the decibel levels in a heated phone call about Bo’s potential. And while his chemistry with Latifah is non-existent, his natural, easy-going rapport with his protégé leaves you rooting for the pair to overcome all their inevitable obstacles.
Not quite a slam dunk...
Hernangómez doesn’t reach the heights of executive producer LeBron James’ scene-stealing turn in Judd Apatow's hit comedy Trainwreck but nor does he plumb the depths of Shaquille O’Neal in bizarre fantasy Kazaam. His big emotional moment, a tete-a-tete in which he explains his chequered past, is undoubtedly more of an air ball than a slam dunk. The novice’s monotonous delivery, however, isn’t so much of a barrier when attention switches to the game itself, and in the on-court scenes with trash-talking rival Kermit (Minnesota Wolves’ Anthony Edwards), he brings a palpable tension.
Hernangómez and Edwards aren’t the only NBA stars moonlighting here, either. Hustle is crammed full of big-name players and coaches attempting to prove their acting credentials with varying degrees of screen time. Dirk Nowitzki, for example, only briefly appears via FaceTime to verify that Stanley isn’t a public transport pervert, while Kenny Smith enjoys a much more substantial role as sports agent Leon Rich. Others, such as Kyle Lowry, Seth Curry and Jordan Clarkson, are simply there to make all the dribbling look as authentic as possible.
Even if these greats mean nothing to you, Hustle should still engage. Ably assisted by experimental composer Dan Deacon’s intense rhythmic score, director Jeremiah Zagar knows how to frame the thrills of the game. But handpicked by Sandler, perhaps surprisingly considering his only other feature is 2018’s dreamlike coming-of-age We The Animals, he’s just as adept at capturing the dynamics of the boardroom and the dinner table.
An early scene in which Stanley and Vince clash heads over statistics possesses the same kind of snappiness that made the similarly dry subject matter of Moneyball so compelling. You only wish the pair shared the screen more often, with their obvious disdain for each other the film’s most enjoyable aspect. Meanwhile, the meetings with Bo’s charming mom (Argentinian-Spanish actress Maria Botto providing a touch of class) help fill in the blanks without resorting to clumsy exposition and give the film a chance to breathe.
And while any Sandler fans hoping for the broad humour of The Do-Over and The Ridiculous 6 will be left disappointed, there are still plenty of laughs to be found: see the opening scene in which a Serbian man mountain tries to hoodwink Stanley about his blatantly obvious middle age, or the latter’s increasing exasperation over Bo’s wasteful room service habits (“We don’t eat nine-dollar Pringles. A man must have a code”).
Hustle does occasionally drop the ball, with the ‘man up’ life lessons and ‘your mom’ jokes veering a little too close to toxic masculinity territory. And despite the constant setbacks, including an act of violence which would instantly put pay to any real-life professional ambitions, the outcome of the crucial NBA Draft Combine, where Bo's fate in the NBA will be decided, is never really in doubt. There’s even a mad dash to (well, more like inside) an airport, just to tick off another cliché. Still, this rousing redemption tale is further evidence that Sandler is a damn fine actor whenever he actually strives to reach the top of his game.
Hustle is out now on Netflix.
Get daily insight, inspiration and deals in your inbox
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.