1999, R, 146 min. Directed by Norman Jewison. Starring Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Clancy Brown, Dan Hedaya, Liev Schreiber, John Hannah, Deborah Unger, David Paymer, Rod Steiger.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 14, 2000
Despite all the pre-release hype and the torrents of critical acclaim that continue to patter down like earlobes in a Tyson match, Norman Jewison's tale of falsely convicted Sixties-era prizefighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter feels overlong and underscripted. It's a true story crammed to bursting with emotional, social, and racial relevance, and two-thirds of the way through its 146-minute running time it does burst, ending on a predictably trite note of courtroom theatrics straight out of, well, if not Ally McBeal, then certainly … And Justice for All. It's a powerful story but only an occasionally powerful film, and those passages that linger in the mind's eye have everything to do with Denzel Washington's phenomenal acting abilities and precious little to do with either Jewison's heavy-handed direction or the film's revolving cast of marginally insufferable do-gooding characters. And then, of course, there's the fact that Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon's script (from Carter's recently reissued autobiography The 16th Round) condenses much of the truth about their subject's less palatable aspects as well as creating an entirely fictional bad cop character to stand in for an entire, morally bankrupt justice system. Didn't anyone learn anything from Mississippi Burning? Obviously not. Carter was at the peak of his boxing career when he (along with another man) was arrested, tried, and convicted in 1966 in Paterson, New Jersey, for a triple homicide he didn't commit. In Jewison's film, the court case and conviction is ramrodded through with the assistance of an unctuous, scheming Paterson detective who, we are led to believe, has been hankering to put this uppity “colored” in his place since Carter's boyhood days (in real life, there was no such fellow, although, clearly, Carter, who spent time in a juvenile hall and later in prison for burglary, was clearly on the outs with the N.J. justice system almost since day one). Jewison's film follows Carter's descent into near madness while in prison; his mental redemption through an informed sense of penal stoicism; his ensuing correspondence with a young boy by the name of Lesra Martin (Shannon), who's read his autobiography and wants to help out; and Lesra's guardians, an oddball triumvirate of Canadian hippies (Unger, Hannah, Schreiber) who drop everything and come to his aid, eventually helping to overturn his conviction and set him free (in a Hollywood moment so hackneyed it almost saps the spirit from the rest of the film). That's the bad news. The good news is hardly surprising: Its name is Denzel Washington who, for my money, is one of the top three male actors working today. Despite the cliché-ridden, factually loose script (and some confusing back-and-forth direction from Jewison), Washington shines like beacon of triumph over all. A beacon you wouldn't want to piss off, yes, but a beacon nonetheless. Like Angelina Jolie's performance in Girl, Interrupted, Washington's steely charm and indisputable acting chops rescue the art from the pabulum, and make The Hurricane, if not a great film, then at the very least a watchable one.