Juancho Hernangomez as Bo Cruz and Adam Sandler as Stanley...

Juancho Hernangomez as Bo Cruz and Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugerman in Netflix's "Hustle." Credit: Netflix/Scott Yamano

MOVIE "Hustle"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Adam Sandler gives another first-rate dramatic performance in "Hustle," one of the better sports movies in recent years. He plays longtime international NBA scout Stanley Sugerman, tirelessly journeying from one country to the next in search of the next big talent for his employer, the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Stanley wants nothing more than some relief from this life on the road, seeking a promised assistant coaching gig that will allow for more time at home with his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull).

An unexpected series of events send him back across the pond once more, however, and while in Mallorca, Spain, he stumbles across a once-in-a-generation talent in a construction worker named Bo Cruz (played by real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), destroying the competition in a street game.

The Netflix movie is directed by Jeremiah Zagar ("We the Animals"), coproduced by LeBron James and co-stars Ben Foster and Robert Duvall.

It also features enough past-and-present professional basketball talent on-screen to field several full teams, ranging from the Minnesota Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards as Kermit, Bo's chief rival in the pre-draft scouting combine, to the longtime player and current "Inside the NBA" broadcaster Kenny Smith as Leon, Stanley's close friend and former college teammate.

MY SAY Sandler has a gift for playing people like Stanley, down-on-their-luck strivers who refuse to surrender their dreams of something more even in the face of what can seem like an avalanche of adversity.

He's shown this before, most recently as a far less likable character in "Uncut Gems." 

Of course, he'll always be best known for his comedies. But projects like "Hustle" emphasize how seriously Sandler should be taken as an avatar for this sort of relatable everyman, excellent at his job but still driving that decades-old Chevy Malibu, unable to ascend to the next professional level that he so richly deserves.

The star provides this movie with its soul, constructing a compelling relationship with Hernangómez, who is a better actor than one might expect from a professional athlete.

As Stanley brings Bo to the United States and fights overwhelming institutional skepticism to get him into the NBA Draft, their bond deepens from one defined by mutual aspirations to the sort of profound affection that you don't necessarily expect from a sports picture.

The actors capture this through subtle gestures such as reaction shots during the sports sequences and in nighttime drives through the city, providing pauses for reflection in a picture that's also very much defined by the dynamic way it captures Bo's training process.

Zagar takes the template introduced and perfected by another Philadelphia-set classic, a little movie called "Rocky," and makes it seem fresh and exciting.

Even the requisite montage approach is nothing less than gripping: the movie showcases the pure hard work required to compete with the world's best players, through shots of Bo sprinting up a Philadelphia hill mixed with images of him working on his basketball skills.

Perhaps the best testament to the impact of "Hustle" is that the movie finds rich dramatic terrain in some pretty esoteric stuff: the world of NBA front office negotiating and player development.

BOTTOM LINE "Hustle" is worth seeing even if you don't like basketball. That says it all.

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