“White Men Can’t Jump” holds a special place in a lot of moviegoers’ hearts; while not the enduring sports classic that writer-director Ron Shelton delivered with his baseball mash note “Bull Durham,” the buddy comedy vividly captures the world of pick-up basketball players, and features three standout performances by Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez. Director Calmatic’s 2023 remake not only fails to recapture the energy of the first film but seems to misunderstand the cinematic language of streetball, and is largely uninterested in utilizing stars Sinqua Walls and Jack Harlow except as delivery systems for exposition.
Updated only in its excess of contemporary slang and overwrought backstories, “White Men Can’t Jump” exemplifies the aversion to risk and lack of imagination in storytellers mining intellectual property at the behest of blandest-common-denominator-seeking corporate overlords.
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Walls plays Kamal Allen, a onetime pro ball hopeful turned parcel deliveryman who relives old glories by dominating pals Speedy (Vince Staples) and Renzo (Myles Bullock) at his local fitness club. After meeting Jeremy (Harlow), a fellow former athlete with two ACL injuries who raises money with a dubious-looking player training program involving meditation and homemade detox juices, Kamal is asked to partner up for a tournament to win $25,000 in prize money.
He reluctantly agrees in order to help his wife Imani (Teyana Taylor) fund her dreams of being a hairdresser, but Jeremy’s eccentric behavior puts them at odds with one another when they’re not on the court. Jeremy, meanwhile, hopes to earn enough to pay for surgery to repair his knees, rekindling his own basketball aspirations despite the objections of girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier), a dancer and choreographer. As the tournament nears, the duo’s chances of participating become threatened when it’s unclear if they can raise enough money for the entry fee, but while hustling their way across southern California’s courts, each begins to realize that the obstacle in their way isn’t a better team — or each other — but unresolved events from the past.
Even without being a Sidney Deane/Billy Hoyle superfan, there are many ways in which Calmatic’s film draws (mostly unfavorable) comparisons to its predecessor starting with its depiction of the game of basketball, much less the streetball that Kamal and Jeremy play. Shelton managed to convey more than the layout of the game, he captured the personality of the players and their relationship with one another on and off the court. In the ’23 version, not only do the logistics of the game change throughout the film — why they’re playing five-on-five matches throughout the film until the tournament, and then shift to three-on-three, only screenwriters Kenya Barris and Doug Hall can explain — but the actual playing isn’t well-documented, illustrative of each character’s talent level, or even just exciting. Moreover, outside of the opening set-up where Jeremy fools Kamal, they’re not even hustlers, robbing them (and us) of the thrill of watching opponents get stymied by their sudden prowess.
The feelgood, nobody’s-less-talented-than-anybody-else approach seems a byproduct both of changing times and protecting feelings, but it robs their journey of the uncertainty of whether their subterfuge will work, the larger possibility that their opponents might also be hustling them back, or just the drama of who’ll win each showdown. But by instead burdening the characters with origin stories soaked in resentment, tragedy and unfulfilled dreams, Barris and Hall yearn toward a level of personal and professional transcendence at the end of this hero’s journey the rest of film simply cannot sustain. Hell, with two torn ACLs, Jeremy shouldn’t even be able to manage more than a few minutes on the court, but what in Shelton’s story operated as a blue-collar character study has been transformed into a redemptive hero’s journey where everyone gets exactly what they want at the end.
As much as we see his skills under the basket, Walls is convincing as a player, even if he (rightfully or no) seems preoccupied with the weight of his moment of failure and an underfed secondary plot line involving his doting father Benji, played by the late Lance Reddick. (Reddick’s character is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but the script appears to know less about that ailment than it does about the effects of double-knee injuries.) For better or worse, Harlow is forgettable as Jeremy, shouldering an unfair responsibility to update racial dynamics in a movie that wants to both be progressive and leverage outdated attitudes for comedic purposes, but the rapper-turned-actor is at his best when he’s actively clearing the lane for his more seasoned costars.
As their respective romantic partners, Teyana Taylor brings a no-nonsense appeal to the role of Imani, Kamal’s steady-handed, supportive wife, while Laura Harrier, previously a winning scene-stealer in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” mostly waits patiently for Tatiana to become important to Jeremy’s story.
The film marks Calmatic’s second remake of the year after New Line’s “House Party,” and once again he either ignores or doesn’t get what made its predecessor a generational touchstone. The most conspicuous references he deploys are to the original duo’s eccentric opponents — one now wielding a flamethrower — and Gloria’s impulse, reenacted by Tatiana, to put the moves on her partner while he’s driving. But if there aren’t any similarities that run deeper than one dimension, why even call the films by the same name?
In an era where basketball — and hustling — is more popular than ever, there might be more of an audience than ever for the story that “White Men Can’t Jump” has an opportunity to tell. This film unfortunately feels like a weekend warrior at your local gym agreeing to play a game of horse against LeBron James: It may stand in the same place as greatness, but falls short everywhere that actually matters.
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