A remake of the 1992 film about a pair of basketball hustlers who team up to earn extra cash.
Smart, funny and sincere, Calmatic’s “White Men Can’t Jump,” is one of the biggest surprises of the cinematic year, an unexpectedly entertaining remake that manages not only to improve on the Ron Shelton original but also proves to be timely in the way it approaches issues of race relations and gender roles. And while the script by Kenya Barris and Doug Hall provides a solid foundation, it’s the chemistry between the two leads, as well as solid supporting turns, that provides the spark that brings it all to life.
A basketball phenom from early on, high school senior Kamal (Sinqua Walls) has the world on a string. A stellar college career and then stardom in the NBA seem to be the next logical steps for the young man. However, despite his boisterous father’s (Lance Riddick) predictions of greatness, Kamal fails to meet the grand expectations set for him and finds himself ten years later playing pick-up games and hustling cash on the side. And despite having a supportive wife in Imani (Teyana Taylor) and a healthy son, he knows something’s lacking in his life.
Jeremy’s (Jack Harlow) experiences are running on a parallel track. Though excelling at Gonzaga, numerous knee injuries scuttled his NBA dreams. He’s biding time coaching young players and also scamming others on the court for a couple bucks here and there. Yet, he harbors unrealistic notions that he may still be able to step into the limelight, searching for one miracle cure after another to address his physical woes.
Though this is his film debut, Harlow is very much at ease in front of the camera. His natural charm translates easily, winning over the audience with his laidback style and the childish gleam in his eye. His deft approach to comedy holds him in good stead, a wonderful compliment to Walls’ more serious turn. Far more than simply a straight man, he knows how to convey a myriad of emotions by doing very little, a simple look letting us know all that Kamal is wrestling with. Toiling in relative obscurity for over 15 years, here’s hoping “White” provides Walls with greater opportunities. Were these two to be paired in other films, as Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes were after the success of the original, I’d be eager to see the results.
The movie has its fair share of surprises and perhaps its biggest is how smart Barris and Hall’s script is and that they resist the temptation to pander to the audience. Issues of race are not ignored but explored through humorous exchanges between Kamal and Jeremy, their rapid-fire patter bringing their obvious differences to the table and then dispensing of them with honest statements of validation and understanding. Just as important are the portraits of our hero’s romantic partners. Imani and Tatiana (Laura Harrier), Jeremy’s long-suffering girlfriend, are seen as far more mature and practical than their male counterparts. These women are focused on the goals they have and the steps they need to take to achieve them, each rendered as smart, strong characters to be reckoned with.
I was afraid the film would wallow in crudity. However, the trash talk that ensues throughout is clever rather than coarse, while the jokes dispensed by Myles Bullock and Vince Staples, the comedy relief of the film, are clever but no less barbed. And while the escapades on the court are a delight to witness, it’s the interactions between Walls and Harlow that stick with you as well as “White’s” message of understanding and perseverance.
3 1/2 Stars
“White Men Can’t Jump” originally from 1992 starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as a polar opposite pair of basketball hustlers joining forces to win in a big tournament is being remade into a fresh new version starring Sinqua Walls and Jack Harlow. While most of us haven’t seen the original in 30 years or perhaps have never even seen it at all, doing so isn’t a necessity. The newest iteration is the same premise, just updated to today’s world.
Kamal (Walls) is a young basketball prodigy in high school who has a promising future ahead of him coached by his father Benji (Lance Reddick). Dealing with family issues weighs heavily upon the young man ultimately crushing him and all his chances of becoming an NBA star player. We fast-forward 10 years to the current day where Kamal has some anger issues both on the court in a recreational league and off the court in his job. Enter Jeremy (Harlow), a uniquely dressed young man coaching a player and finding a way to hustle his way into Kamal’s tightly knit group of players. The competition begins as the two loathe one another but ultimately find a friendship to foster. Like the original, Jeremy and Kamal’s relationship is a rollercoaster ride, both attempting to grow up and become responsible adults even if it is a little late in the timeline of life.
Remakes are difficult, but with the original writer and director Ron Shelton on board, it seems a little less risky. And let’s face it, 30 years have gone by which also lessens the risks of failure. The script and the chemistry has to be there no matter what and as it follows the same arc of the original story, Walls and Harlow are a great match. Kamal finds depth to his character as Kamal looks back on his past decisions and attempts to confront them while balancing family life. Harlow is off-the-cuff funny with his staccato speech style and innocent persona. While his character doesn’t have the depth of Wall’s, it’s a perfect fit.
The supporting cast of characters give it the comedic punch or perhaps the punching bag for Jeremy to riff from and while Laura Harrier’s Tatiana can’t quite match Rosie Perez’s powerhouse performance, she adds what’s needed to the storyline. Let’s delve into the script and dialogue which feels cleaner and less offensive than the original. The jabs Jeremy and Kamal make toward one another and others as they hustle the court are so quick and funny, it’s tough to keep track of them all. They also delve into race as Jeremy, who is dating someone of color, sometimes appears innocently insensitive to what he’s saying and doing. Their conversations feel real as the two attempt to understand one another even as Kamal admits to liking Ed Sheeran.
“White Men Can’t Jump” finds a fresh new way to tell a cherished original story from 1992. Bringing today’s issues into the story with two leads who have authentic chemistry, it’s a slam dunk of a movie.