Nineties nostalgia has extended now to 1992’s “White Men Can’t Jump” returning to the blacktop courts where Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson hustled and Rosie Perez studied “Jeopardy!” answers for foods beginning with the letter “Q.”
Why, you ask? The principal reason seems to be giving Jack Harlow, a charismatic, fast-rising white rapper making his acting debut, a vehicle for his laid-back charm.
The original “White Men Can’t Jump” thrived on Harrelson’s goofball energy and the “You can’t hear Jimmy” trash talk of Snipes, a criminally underrated comic actor (see “Dolemite Is My Name”). The contributions of Perez, a hooped-earrings firecracker who makes any movie a little better, shouldn’t be minimized, either. “White Men Can’t Jump,” the rare sports movie where the woman (Perez) walks out on the guy (Harrelson), hinged mostly on its off-court drama.
This limp, half-hearted, breezy remake makes some modest improvements. The film, directed by Calmatic, bounces to a hip-hop beat and the gameplay action is smoother. But the drop off in personality from that original trio is like going from the Lakers to the G-League.
Sinqua Walls stars as Kamal, a once highly touted prospect whose professional career derailed in a rage-fueled incident the film slowly reveals through flashbacks. (The late Lance Reddick plays Kamal’s father in one of his last performances.) He’s now struggling through a job delivering packages while customers often ridicule him for how low he’s fallen. His girlfriend, Imani (Teyana Taylor), though, lovingly supports him.
One day at the gym, Jeremy (Harlow) makes a loud entrance, dressed like, as one character later says, a Sierra Mist can. Kamal’s friend Speedy (Vince Staples) notices him and says, “They let yoga instructors into the gym now?” Jeremy, a former player at NCAA powerhouse Gonzaga now hobbled by knee pain, is there to hustle games and sell some detox drinks.
Harlow’s character is brash, as Harrelson’s was, but he’s sweeter. His trash talk is earnest. He meditates. The joke isn’t that he’s racially out of touch, it’s that he’s almost too sensitive.
Mostly, he’s a chatty, charming nuisance that Kamal reluctantly turns to as an on-court partner with hopes of a big cash prize in a three-on-three tournament. Jeremy, meanwhile, has a girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Harrier), who’s pressing him to grow up and find a real job.
Calmatic worked in music videos (Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”) before making his directorial debut earlier this year with a reboot of 1990’s “House Party.”
And he films “White Men Can’t Jump” with a polish that takes out some of the asphalt grit that the movie needs. If the original resided on the blacktop, as any pick-up basketball movie should, this remake curiously favors indoor hoops. Last year’s surprisingly good basketball movie, “Hustle,” with Adam Sandler, had the texture the game deserves.
Walls holds his own in “White Men Can’t Jump” and Harlow has an easy charm. His debut pales next to those of rappers like Ice Cube, Mos Def and Tupac Shakur. It’s asking too much, though, for him to supply so much of the comedy here. The jokes, too, are timid. How is it possible that in today’s fraught America, the biggest debate Jeremy and Kamal get into is over whether Spike Lee or Paul Thomas Anderson is the better filmmaker?
There are a few suggestions that betting on pick-up basketball might not be the hustle it once was. Try crypto, one character suggests. Another says it’s clear now that white players can ball. I’m not sure it’s so different than in 1992, when Chris Mullin and John Stockton were in the league. Now there’s Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Tyler Herro, who makes a cameo. No mention is made of the recent NBA dunk champ, the 6’2’’ Mac McClung, but an older winner of that contest, Blake Griffin, is an executive producer.
But one thing should not have changed. This “White Men Can’t Jump” never gives its girlfriend characters much to do. They mostly recede as the on-court exploits take over, thus ignoring Perez’s wise words from the original: “Always listen to the women.”
“White Men Can’t Jump,” a 20th Century Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for pervasive language and some drug material. Running time: 101 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
—Jake Coyle, The Associated Press