THE STORY – Two ballers, opposites who are seemingly miles apart, find they might have more in common than they imagined possible.
THE CAST – Sinqua Walls, Jack Harlow, Teyana Taylor, Laura Harrier, Vince Staples, Myles Bullock & Lance Reddick
THE TEAM – Calmatic (Director), Kenya Barris & Doug Hall (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 101 Minutes
In 1992, writer/director Ron Shelton delivered the classic sports comedy film “White Men Can’t Jump” with 90s star Wesly Snipes and (now) three-time Academy Award Nominee Woody Harrelson. Just over 30 years later, screenwriters Kenya Barris and Doug Hall collaborated with director Calmatic for a present-day take on the 1992 sports classic. And, with sports terminology, the film shoots and scores with its attempts to tell their vision of the hustle game and world of basketball, delivering a surprisingly entertaining, feel-good sports film.
So many inspired — or rather, uninspired — remakes and reboots come out each year, so much so that it can feel hit or miss. But “White Men Can’t Jump” mostly sticks the landing for multiple reasons. One is the chemistry between the lead actors: Sinqua Walls, who plays the African-American lead, Kamal, and rapper Jack Harlow as Jeremy, the white co-lead. Both of them share similar storylines as two street basketball players struggling to make a name for themselves after hitting rock bottom in their lives. Kamal’s character revolves around the harsh actions he committed in the past, and Jeremy’s character revolves around his bodily injuries. The two performances are able to bring a classic buddy comedy onscreen presence, working with what is a been-there-done formulaic script that doesn’t depict anything new — especially in regards to the standard, “Our cultures may be different, but I can help you with your issues, and you can help me with my issues” routine. But, where the script lacks freshness, it makes up for it with the film’s comedy and the writers using their comedic backgrounds to add a layer of fun levity to high-stakes situations in the basketball world.
The supporting cast mainly works for the movie as well. Teyana Taylor fills the shoes of the original supportive black wife to the protagonist, who is based on the original character played by Tyra Ferrell. Taylor’s performance as Imani adds extra layers of depth to the character of Kamal character, in terms of his fight for a better life for his wife and his toddler son. Laura Harrier, as Tatiana, Jeremy’s partner, serves the role well by showcasing sweet chemistry with Harlow while she conveys the struggle of not being so supportive of Jeremy’s basketball dreams. This offers a bit more dramatic tension when the story calls for it. But, the story’s emotional heart has to be the late Lance Reddick as Benji, Kamal’s father and former trainer, during his high school glory days. Benji gives another aspect of character work to Kamal — more than what was seen from the original character Sidney Deane — and adds a softer and more vulnerable side to Kamal’s tough exterior. Reddick’s screen time is limited, but when he is onscreen, he commits to the role of the determined father struggling to reconcile with his son after his criminal fallout.
But “White Men Can’t Jump” shines bright when capturing the basketball gameplay sequences. Director Calmatic, mostly known for his music videos, shoots these sequences with tasteful fluidity. He makes you feel a musical rhythm to the gaming sequences, and by the time we reach the big championship at the end, his blocking engages you with the matches as if watching an actual live basketball match. He truly respects the basketball culture and its roots and influence on urban communities. This is often shown through its shot composition and wide/medium framing, depicting every cross-up, point shot, and drunk in an attractive way. Rather than being quickly paced in its editing, close-up shots give one a feeling of being in the game. Instead, the choice of making you the audience — as opposed to a player — was very fitting and appropriate.
However, while “White Men Can’t Jump” mostly sticks the landing, the movie still misses some of its attempted shots. Like the original film, the new “White Men Can’t Jump” illustrates commentary on modern-day racism and relations with views on culture appropriation, stereotypes, and black vs. white topics. The writing definitely makes an effort as, even in 2023, racism on both sides — especially towards black people — still exists. But, unfortunately, the writing is very safe and surface-level when it comes to these topics, whether it’s interracial relationships — which Barris has a lot of experience portraying — such as the one between Jeremy and Tatiana. This also includes the hypocrisy of issues in the African-American community in regard to mental health and even white men attempting to educate and tell black men how things should be. Much of this is seen in downbeat moments, whether it’s Jeremy trying to educate Kamal on his feelings as a black man or Kamal disregarding some of Jeremy’s goodwill because he’s white. The film touches upon these topics and rightfully acknowledges them. Still, the discussion (at times) feels generic, especially as we’ve seen Barris touch upon these topics before and do it better with other projects. Also, some of this commentary resulted in attempts at comedy, especially from Kamal’s friends Speedy and Rezzno (played by Vince Staples and Miles Bullock), who don’t land all of their banter well with jokes that try to recognize the issues of race relations. Instead, the film should have taken those moments and had a payoff that informs its audience how the filmmaker and writers feel about these topics.
Overall, “White Men Can’t Jump” succeeds when focused on the world of basketball and these two different men who work together to become financially stable while simultaneously pursuing their dreams. It’s a feel-good sports film that makes for an entertaining watch at home. It may not be as good as the original film — although it was never a masterpiece of sports filmmaking, so this remake didn’t have to struggle to live up to the original. The director of this remake took much care and clearly had respect for the original film, as his version gives admirable direct references to the original while engraving his own updated style that may not be as great as it thinks it is but is nonetheless something that can appeal to basketball lovers and a younger generation of movie fans.