Synopsis: Juggling tenuous relationships, financial pressures, and serious internal struggles, two ballers–opposites who are seemingly miles apart–find they might have more in common than they imagined possible.
Stars: Sinqua Walls, Jack Harlow, Teyana Taylor, Laura Harrier, Vince Staples, Myles Bullock, Lance Reddick
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: It can’t be stated enough what a huge impact 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump had on the careers of stars Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, and Rosie Perez. Without the success of that film, who can tell what the rest of the ’90s would have looked like for the trio. Would Snipes have drawn such huge crowds with Passenger 57 later that year, the first of a dozen routine action thrillers he would elevate thanks to his blend of easy-going machismo and take no guff beatdowns? It’s hard to call if Perez’s Oscar nomination the following year for Fearless after many thought she’d get one for her breakout role here, would have been a sure bet. Then there’s Harrelson, jumping from a dopey sidekick role on Cheers to costarring with Snipes and sharing top billing a year later with Demi Moore and Robert Redford in the much-discussed Indecent Proposal. For all three, the film was a gateway to their future success.
And you know what? They deserved it. Revisiting the original film (like this remake, available on Hulu) shows that it holds up remarkably well three decades later, aside from the hysterically dated attire (those with an aversion to neon, spandex, and puffy shirts have been warned). It’s as fast and funny as ever, with the undeniable chemistry between Snipes and Harrelson being the de facto lynchpin in making writer/director Ron Shelton’s basketball buddy film a slam dunk. If that weren’t enough, you have Perez stealing the movie from under her male costars as Harrelson’s Jeopardy! obsessed girlfriend that loves her man but doesn’t love his terrible ways of being hustled for money. Perez is the rock-solid core of the film, while the men provide the flash around her.
My first thought when I heard they were remaking White Men Can’t Jump for a modern audience was: how will they ever replicate what Rosie Perez brought to the original? Finding two leads that could dribble a ball and strike up believably chemistry isn’t that hard, but to bottle up that lightning for a second time would be rare. Screenwriters Doug Hall and Kenya Barris have sidestepped that challenge altogether for better or for worse and not even attempted to find another Perez, centering their script around the two leads (Sinqua Walls and rapper Jack Harlow) and short-shifting the women. The result is a remake in name only that may have longtime fans crying foul initially but does get easier to warm up to the longer you keep your head in the game.
Although once a promising high-school basketball star on the road to playing professionally, a brush with the law ended the dreams of Kamal Allen (Walls, Nanny) before they could even begin. Playing pick-up games with his friends and working to pay off mounting expenses to help his wife Imani (Teyana Taylor, A Thousand and One) launch her hair salon, he carries guilt for disappointing his dad (the late Lance Reddick, John Wick: Chapter 4) struck down by ALS and isn’t up for being challenged on his home turf. That’s just what entrepreneur Jeremy (Harlow) does, though.
Always working some angle, Jeremy is currently pushing his detox drink while trying to train other rising talent players. Hampered by an injury that has kept him from reaching his potential, he isn’t above taking a hot-headed player like Kamal for a few bills when the player tries to get under his skin. Kamal recognizes talent when he sees it, and while Jeremy’s girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier, The Starling) wants him to give up playing and devote all attention to starting a life with her, he can’t resist taking Kamal up on his offer to play in a series of tournaments for major money. Of course, the two must get used to their different styles and get over personal hang-ups to position themselves to win.
It takes a solid twenty minutes for a viewer familiar with the original White Men Can’t Jump to acclimate to this new environment and understand that the remake isn’t working with the same set of rules as its predecessor. I’m not even sure why it retained the title, it’s established early on that the notion of white players not being able to sink a basket is old-fashioned, and that’s about all the reference we get. Why Hall and Barris wanted to remake the property is puzzling; the story they’ve outlined is so different, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its compelling narrative at the same time. Walls and Harlow aren’t ever trying to copy what Snipes and Harrelson put on film, creating new characters and being given some slack by director Calmatic (of the terrible 2023 House Party remake) to do so. This is Harlow’s first foray into acting, and while he acquits himself nicely, you get the feeling Walls is holding back a bit not to act quite so many circles around him.
In Shelton’s original film, there was more equality between the two players. While there is an attempt to find balance, the new White Men Can’t Jump always feels like it’s more in Kamal’s court than Jeremy’s. Walls has a more well-rounded storyline (and supporting cast), so that’s fine, but I wonder what it would have been like had the film been filled with a more robust roster. This is a minor nitpick, but there is consistent talk about Jeremy not having much money and he’s wearing clothes meant to look raggy, but you can tell they are carefully chosen works that cost a pretty penny. A quilted name-brand hoodie? And he has trouble paying for hourly parking? I don’t think so.
I wish the women in White Men Can’t Jump were treated as well as the men. Taylor’s role is indeed more significant than Tyra Ferrell’s was in the 1992 film, but I don’t know what is going on with the creation of Harrier’s part. Jeremy’s girlfriend is such an unlikable bore; when he professes such devotion to her after she’s spent much of the moving putting him down, you wonder if he’s perhaps taken a few too many basketballs to the head. It’s not helped that Harrier is far from a compelling actress, but then again, she is standing in the shadow of Perez, which no one wants to be in. At least we have another chance to see Taylor in a strong supporting role a month after wowing us in A Thousand and One.
Skipping theaters and debuting on Hulu, the remake of White Men Can’t Jump may not have the same lasting strength on the cinematic court as its source inspiration. Still, it also doesn’t significantly damage the name either. Walls and Harlow make for a friendly pair. If they were to team up again (hey, it worked for Snipes and Harrelson on several unrelated films, I’m looking at you, Money Train – where they were also often eclipsed by a supporting female…newcomer Jennifer Lopez), it could capitalize on the building blocks they’ve put in place here.