Hustle” doesn’t score any points for originality, unless you’ve somehow missed all those sports movies about scouts or coaches finding astonishing talent in unlikely locales. Yet Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix film — produced with, among others, LeBron James — mostly works in following that familiar playbook, peppering its NBA-level action with several rosters worth of basketball cameos. Although the movie has no shortage of close kin (including Netflix’s “Boogie” from last year), one of its sillier ancestors would be “The Air Up There,” a 1994 movie that had Kevin Bacon locating the basketball big man of his dreams in Africa. Here, Sandler’s Stanley Sugerman is a well-traveled scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, who stumbles on a street ball hustler in Spain, Bo Cruz (NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), whose lockdown defensive skills prompt Stanley to describe the guy more than once as being “like Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby.”
Stanley can’t wait to get Bo back to the US and into a 76ers uniform, but of course, the newly installed head of the team (Ben Foster, deserving better) doesn’t see all that potential, prompting the scout to risk his future in order to champion his discovery — a gamble that doesn’t sit especially well with Stanley’s beyond-patient wife (Queen Latifah, also underemployed here).
Raw talent, naturally, isn’t enough, and Stanley has to teach Bo not to let other players get under his skin (primarily as an excuse for an array of amusingly crude taunts about his mother), while turning to various basketball stars past and present for assistance along the way. They include, but aren’t limited to, Julius Erving, Dirk Nowitzki, Doc Rivers, and TNT’s Kenny Smith, the last actually playing a character and, like Hernangómez, doing a perfectly fine job of it. Having churned out fairly generic fare under his Netflix deal, Sandler is in his element as the shambling scout with a wealth of knowledge at his disposal but not always the courage to speak up. His modest ambitions of becoming an assistant coach and giving up all those frequent-flyer miles feel as low-key as the movie itself, and just as central to the story as Bo’s potential rags-to-riches journey. Still, a bit like guarding an NBA star, knowing where “Hustle” is heading and preventing it from getting there are two different things, and the movie gets by thanks to its combination of breezy charm and a solid inside game, including the authenticity of the abundant basketball sequences.
Or as Stanley might put it, it’s sort of like an old-fashioned Disney sports movie and an actual NBA game had a baby.
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