It’s a story we’ve seen unfold many times before: A cynical, aging sports figure finds a spectacular talent in an unlikely place. It eventually becomes a tale of stubborn perseverance, as the figure — now infused with an enthusiasm he thought he lost a long time ago — puts his career on the line to shape and mold the talent into the sports star he obviously will become. Of course, the talent and the figure form an us-against-the-world bond, inspiring each other to stay on course even when naysayers try to figuratively and literally take them out the game.
I can list so many movies that go exactly this way: The Scout. Million Dollar Arm. Trouble with the Curve. Hell, I got an old high-school friend whose dad wrote the script for The Air Up There, a movie where a college basketball coach (Kevin Bacon) heads all the way to Kenya to recruit a prospect.
A similar setup prompts the new Netflix movie Hustle (not to be confused with the 1975 film noir starring Burt Reynolds). Adam Sandler’s veteran basketball scout Stanley Sugarman travels the world, looking for the next great phenom that’ll lead his Philadelphia 76ers to a championship. He thought his days of hopping on planes and eating fast food were over when the owner (a very brief Robert Duvall) promoted him to assistant coach. Unfortunately, the owner dies, and his son (a self-centered Ben Foster) sends him back out on the road.
While in Spain, he sees young dynamo Bo Cruz (Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez) playing some dazzling streetball and immediately recruits him. Even though the team passes on the kid, Sugarman brings him to the States anyway, in the hopes that somebody will pick up this diamond in the rough.
The whole thing is familiar yet likable. Director Jeremiah Zagar (We the Animals) sticks to his Philly roots, as he gives us another inspirational sports yarn (written by A Star is Born co-writer Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, who has written for a couple of NBA 2K games) set in Rocky’s town, featuring not one, but two underdogs. Sandler gives another dramatic, fleshed-out performance that eschews funny voices and weird sounds and faces. (Hustle is one of those rare Happy Madison productions where the star/producer isn’t slumming it in a silly-ass farce.) Sugarman is still a wisecracker, but he’s also a family man (Queen Latifah credibly keeps the home fires burning as Sugarman’s loyal wife) still trying to make a living in a profession he loves — even if it doesn’t love him back. He and Hernangómez’s hotheaded prodigy are in the same boat, as single dad Cruz has only two loves: basketball and his family.
Unless you count all the cameos from past and present b-ball greats (Kenny Smith even lands a supporting role as Sugarman’s supportive pal), there aren’t really any surprises in Hustle. You know that Sugarman is gonna work Cruz hard, so he can be at his best on the court. You know people will try to stop him from being his best (y’all really gonna hate Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who plays a cocky, trash-talking rival). And you know the story is going to end in a triumphant manner. And, yet, it’ll have you rooting for its two main characters every step of the way. Plus, it’s an Adam Sandler movie where Adam Sandler doesn’t act like an unhinged dumbass — so that’s good.
“Hustle” is now streaming on Netflix.