There is something different about an Oscar-worthy movie. It is larger than life, it has grand themes on love and life, it is supposed to inspire, thrill, move. In short, it is Dances With Wolves grand, it is Saving Private Ryan intense, it is The English Patient complex. Director Norman Jewison's (Moonstruck, Agnes of God) latest offering, The Hurricane, aspires to be an Oscar movie. It is lush, it is serious and boy does it try to stuff itself full with Oscar-worthy themes.
When the movie begins, it is America in the 1960's, and the ugly realities of racial politics are flaring up all over again. Rubin Carter, played by Denzel Washington, is a poor black boy made good as a professional boxer, "Hurricane" Carter. As a street urchin growing up in racist New Jersey, he defends a friend against a white pedophile and is unjustly sent to a correction home by a sinister police officer, Depalowski (Dan Hedaya). Escaping from the home, he makes it good as an army officer until Depalowski, hell-bent on persecuting Carter, sends him back to prison. Upon release, he becomes a famous boxer but is framed by Depalowski again, this time for killing three white people in a bar. He proceeds to spend the next 19 years in prison. So this reviewer sits back and waits for a movie about American racial politics to unfold. But wait, suddenly the movie turns into a lush exposition on the joys of boxing, and a long narrative with lovingly trained camera angles on Denzel Washington's bare body results. The movie, based on Rubin Carter's autobiography, The 16th Round, now seems to join in the trend of a new wave of boxing films, such as the upcoming Play It To The Bone, Fight Club and a biography of Muhammed Ali, in discussing the way Man needs to return to his primeval needs to find and develop himself.
So maybe The Hurricane is a boxing movie. Or maybe, as this reviewer starts to note with some dread, it is something else altogether: a critique of the American judicial system even up to the 1990's, where the hand-in-hand complicity of police and the justice system prevents Carter's release from prison in order to cover up police corruption in New Jersey. With dizzying rapidity, Jewison now whips up righteous lawyers who passionately rail against the judicial system as well as shady police officers who threaten the three Canadians who decide to rally to Carter's cause. And as if we weren't more than inundated with inspirational themes, we even have a parallel story of another poor black boy Lesra Martin (Vicellous Shannon) who also has to overcome hardships of race, and who becomes a good friend of Carter after reading his book.
So while all four possibilities for this movie were certainly interesting, put them together and you get a movie that just tries too hard to accomplish too much. And what suffers the most? Explanations and motives for half of the movie, which, Jewison, in trying to incorporate every Oscar-worthy theme in filmmaking, has no choice but to leave out in a movie that is already very long. So we're never given a real reason as to why the ridiculously sinister Depalowski goes out of his way to persecute (and believe me, he really goes out of his way) a black boy out of all the black boys that are in his jurisdiction. Nor are we ever told the process by which the three Canadians (John Hannah, Deborah Unger, Live Schreiber) suddenly become best friends with Carter and decide to move to New Jersey (!) to fight for his release. And because so much of the movie centers round Carter and Carter alone, the other characters are left curiously two-dimensional, with no real reason for the audience to relate to them, and it's hard especially not to moan the unused talent of the marvelous Hannah in particular. Depalowski is the flattest, most stereo-typical, most singularly bland villain imaginable. The three Canadians, despite interesting flashes, are really nothing more than ornament to the film. And Martin, in Jewison's single-minded determination to parallel his story to Carter's, becomes no more than a rather tedious character.
Is this a horrible movie then? Surprisingly, the end result is actually an excellent movie precisely because all the flaws of the movie help to bring out the very best in Denzel Washington. Who cares if the other characters are two-dimensional? Washington's portrayal of Carter is as multi-faceted and nuanced as it can get. Who cares if there are too many ambitious themes? All the better to let Washington demonstrate his versatility in every range of emotion known to man.
Already being touted as an Oscar contender for Best Actor, it is not difficult to see why. Washington just radiates in this film. From being a cocky young fighter with a past, to an embittered prisoner, to a wise guru, there is no transformation that Washington cannot effect in this movie. He has the deepest subtleties of acting to break your heart--such as his expression that seems to encapsulate all the injustice in this world when it is announced in the courtroom that he has been sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. He explodes with the rawest of emotions that makes you catch your breath, such as when he bangs his phone against the cell window telling his lawyer that he cannot stay in prison anymore. There is just nothing that this man does that does not speak straight to the heart.
And so, at the end of the movie, despite it being overcrowded with too many themes, despite it having so little moral ambiguity that there never was any doubt as to its conclusion, despite every other character being a nonentity revolving around Washington, when Carter's release is announced, you cheer with everyone else in the courtroom simply because, well, this is Denzel Washington.
The Best Boxing Movies of All Time
1. Raging Bull (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese
One of the greatest director-actor combinations ever, in perhaps their finest moment. DeNiro's dogged portrayal of Jake LaMotta perfectly fits Scorsese's violent yet often balletic vision.
2. Rocky (1976) dir. John G. Alvidsen