The history of basketball and the NBA in cinema is long and interesting, going from Julius Erving (who also cameos in Hustle) in The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (1979), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Flying High! (1980), and Michael Jordan in Space Jam (1996), to more legitimate performances from players like Ray Allen in Spike Lee’s iconic He Got Game (1998), and Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems (2019). All these films use their NBA stars to bolster the credibility of the basketball film (sans Flying High!), but very rarely has a movie been made directly about the NBA. Enter basketball super fan and walking green light Adam Sandler.
Sandler is a notorious basketball obsessive – famously setting up a net at most of his productions – with even NBA legends vouching for his skill on the court, so it’s no surprise to see him making a movie in this world. The film follows Sandler as ageing scout Stanley Sugerman for the Philadelphia 76ers, owned in this world by Robert Duvall’s Rex Merrick. After Rex’s death and ownership changes hands to his petulant son Vince (Ben Foster), Stan is forced to scout internationally to find a player, which he does in Bo Cruz, played by actual NBA player Juancho Hernangomez.
The film is ultimately a paint-by-numbers inspirational underdog sports movie, closer to Rocky (1976) than The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, but what makes the film worthwhile is the extraordinary verisimilitude of the NBA world, as well as some truly impressive basketball set pieces that tie the film together. Zagar deploys several extended training montages—a staple in any sports film—including Cruz running up steps in Philadelphia that Sandler had to point out during the sequence. The fact that even this moment is played earnestly is an example of the tone the creators are striving towards that separates it from a suite of recent films.
Shot wonderfully on film, director Jeremiah Zagar mines intimate moments out of Hernangomez and his family that are as affecting as the high-octane basketball scenes, especially those between Kermit Wilts (played incredibly by NBA star Anthony Edwards) and Bo Cruz. Any fan of the NBA in recent years could tell you Edwards has exploded onto the scene as one of the best personalities in the sport, and Hustle uses his charm and confidence in a wonderful heel turn as Cruz’s rival leading into the draft.
Hustle is a modern sports film made with a high level of skill by Zagar, but it comes at an interesting moment in the genre. The modern sports film finds itself in a precarious position, with the dominance of sports documentary films and series crowding the market. On top of this, the only avenue for filmmakers to create a sports film or series in the 2020s seems to be the involvement of the athlete in question or as part of an athlete-led production company. Hustle is no different here with the involvement of LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s production company, Springhill Company involved, no doubt a key reason the film was able to achieve such a high level of NBA verisimilitude.
While not a terribly innovative or imaginative sports drama, Hustle continues Sandler’s recent run of more serious performances, growing into his later years as an actor that is choosing to work in more interesting and creative spaces. Die-hard NBA fans will lap this film up, while also having enough quality sports filmmaking moments to entertain the less sports averse.
Hustle is currently streaming on Netflix.