It wasn’t the news that 20th Century Studios is bringing a straight-to-Hulu remake starring those household names Sinqua Walls and Jack Harlow next month that had me settle in and rewatch “White Men Can’t Jump” last night.
It was the anemic attempt to tell the story of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton that had me craving a basketball movie starring and co-starring guys who can really play that made that call. There’s all this material listed in “trivia” on the IMDb page for the 1992 “White Men” that details the toughest thing to get right in a sports movie. Ron Shelton was the best ever at making sports pics — “Tin Cup,” “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump.” He developed an ethos, apparently after working with actor-not-a-pitcher Tim Robbins in “Bull Durham.”
“You’ve got to be able to play.”
He cast two guys who proved to have chemistry that went beyond this movie. Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes clicked, Woody could really play and the athletic, motor-mouthed marvel Snipes could showboat well enough to fake it (Wesley Can’t Shoot) and the movie that they made is classic Shelton –scruffy and sporty and romantic and fated to celebrate the lovable, badly-flawed losers Shelton built his sports pics around.
Harrelson plays Billy Hoyle, a hoops hustler new to this corner of LA. Snipes is Sidney Deane, the trash-talking would-be king of whatever rec dept. courts he’s holding forth on.
“Oh man shut your anorexic malnutrition tapeworm-having overdose on Dick Gregory Bahamian diet-drinking ass up. Leave me alone!”
And that’s how he talks to his friends. This new goofy white guy? “Brady Bunch” is the nicest and only G-rated thing he can say about him. Until, that is, he underestimates Billy in a pick-up game.
Both of these guys are using basketball for the street-bets income — Sidney as one of several gigs/hustles keeping his wife (Tyra Ferrell, regal and imposing) and baby housed and fed, Billy as the main means of support for himself and his aspiring “Jeopardy” contestant girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez, playing a sweeter verrsion of the spitfires she played during those years).
Billy and Gloria are on the lam from underworld “collectors.” Rhonda and Sidney are desperate to move out of an unsafe apartment and st
The men’s story arcs are from dislike and mistrust to collaboration, with a betrayal and other stumbles along the way. The women in their lives have their own agendas, and own uneasy peace. That’s a great touch.
Other than that, “White Men Can’t Jump” is basically just a “big game/big tourney” sports formula movie, all building towards an outdoor court 2-on-2 tournament with big — but not life-changing — money waiting the winners.
There’s a whiff of “Great White Hope” wish fulfillment fantasy about the film, which dates it.
But the comedy still plays, the caffeine-jag patter on the court, the deluge of insults, the hustler and the “chump” as hustler.
“You can put a cat in an oven, but that don’t make it a biscuit.”
And the basketball is glorious, beautifully, kinetically shot, putting us on the court, scrambling to make a cut so that Sidney has an open man to hit, that Billy doesn’t let his “can’t jump” “chump” handicap hold them back.
The remake’s trailer shows little of the charisma, chemistry and hoops savvy of the original. But this “classic” isn’t an untouchable masterpiece. There’s remake room in the material, beefing up Sidney’s role and maybe even telling the story mostly from his point of view.
No, Shelton apparently isn’t involved in the remake, and he sued Fox over withheld profit sharing from the original. Sued and won, I might add. Perhaps they got the remake rights as part of the settlement.
But if those guys “can’t play,” I can tell you right now it’s “game over” before this new “Can’t Jump” starts.
Rating: R for language and sexuality
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez, Tyra Ferrell, Kadeem Hardison and Cylk Cozart.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ron Shelton. A 20th Century Fox release on Amazon and other streaming platforms.
Running time: 1:55