Review: ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ remake is a flagrant foul against the original 1992 hoops comedy classic

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews the remake of 'White Men Can't Jump'

Certain sports movies are so perfect that they should never be remade — and filmmaker Ron Shelton made two of them in a span of four years. After the iconic baseball film “Bull Durham” (1988), he directed the basketball flick “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992), which was one of Stanley Kubrick’s Top 10 Favorite Films of All Time. Yes, really.

Alas, the Hollywood machine continues to chew up existing I.P. to spit out carbon copies for the masses to consume. That includes the new remake of “White Men Can’t Jump,” which hits Hulu on Friday with a polished package that can’t compete with the gritty greatness of the cutting-edge original that eased racial tensions after Rodney King. The end credits don’t even cite the right year: “Based on the 1991 motion picture” — come on, man!

The 1992 original follows former college basketball star Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson), who hustles L.A. street ballers who think he’s a talentless white boy before draining shots “in the zone” like Larry Bird. A begrudging friendship evolves with skeptical Black hoopster Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) as the two try to win money to pay back mobsters chasing Billy and his wife Gloria (Rosie Perez), who contributes cash by appearing on “Jeopardy.”

Similarly, the 2023 remake follows former Gonzaga University basketball star Jeremy (Jack Harlow), who blew out his knee and now makes money by hustling L.A. hoopsters at the gym. Here, he meets jaded hoopster Kamal Allen (Sinqua Walls), who was destined to be drafted into the NBA until he charged into the stands like Ron Artest to pummel a taunting fan. Together, they compete in a basketball tournament with a grand prize of $500,000.

Not that it should matter, but we need to state the obvious: the star power between the two films isn’t anywhere close. Snipes was fresh off his iconic role as Willie Mays Hayes in “Major League” (1989) and was on a meteoric rise to land the role in “Blade” (1998), while Harrelson was already a household name as bartender Woody Boyd in NBC’s hit sitcom “Cheers” (1982-1993) en route to starring in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994).

The remake stars two relative newcomers. While Walls has appeared in NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” and MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” Harlow makes his film debut after a successful rap career, earning Grammy nods for “What’s Poppin,” “Churchill Downs,” the Fergie remix “First Class,” and the catchy-as-hell Lil Nas X collaboration “Industry Baby.” Harlow has a charismatic smile, while Walls sheds tears visiting his wheelchair-bound father suffering from MS.

That bittersweet role is played by the late Lance Reddick (“The Wire”), who died back in March before making posthumous appearances in “John Wick 4” and now “White Men Can’t Jump.” Rounding out the supporting cast are rapper Vince Staples as Speedy, Laura Harrier as Jeremy’s ballet dancer girlfriend Tatiana, and Teyana Taylor as Kamala’s hairstylist girlfriend Imani, fresh off her Sundance-winning indie flick “A Thousand and One” (2023).

Penned by “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, the script is packed with racial references, which would work better sparingly rather than every sentence out of Jeremy’s mouth. At one point, Jeremy hurts his knee in the gym, but the next scene, he’s walking fine. The ending feels forced as Kamal joins the Lakers, which is just as far-fetched as Perez landing her wheelhouse “Jeopardy” category (“Foods That Begin With the Letter Q”), but that was hilarious!

Director Calmatic, who shot the music video for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” at least peppers the soundtrack with Tag Team’s “Whomp! There it Is,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” Sublime’s “Santeria,” Black Rob’s “Whoa,” War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and Grover Washington Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us.” He also made me laugh out loud at least once, going from slow motion to regular speed as the roaring crowd nearly spills Speedy’s carry-out food.

Clearly, the filmmaker has talent, but the basic setup is fundamentally flawed. It feels odd to start the film inside a gym rather than a blacktop with dudes in street clothes shooting worn basketballs into chain nets. Thankfully, the remake eventually moves to outdoor courts en route to the tournament, but the prize-money court is painted with neon logos as the players dribble a colorful green-and-red basketball like the Harlem Globetrotters at Christmas.

While the gameplay is realistic with all of the benefits of modern filmmaking, the format is less immersive with 5-on-5 basketball. The 2-on-2 tournament was a much better way to show the bond between the two main characters. Billy and Sidney couldn’t rely on three other teammates to bail them out; they had to rely on each other with “give and go” and a game-winning “alley oop.” In the remake, Jeremy is a sixth man off the bench.

I suppose remakes aren’t all bad. Maybe this will inspire a new generation to go back and discover the original. However, if you invite your buddies over to watch it on Friday night, make it a double feature with the original as the main attraction. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. If you don’t want to tarnish your fond memories of a classic and want to stream something new, I recommend “Air” on Amazon Prime, “Hustle” on Netflix or “Rise” on Disney+.

2 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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