Sports films are at their best when they focus on the human interest story at its core. Director Jeremiah Zagar Hurry scores for doing just that efficiently and effortlessly, delivering a nimble, quick-footed feature about a basketball scout whose quest for the perfect player reaps personal dividends that outweigh the professional ones. Though it follows a by-the-numbers plot and borrows pages from the playbooks of The air up there and my giant, Its compelling character and intoxicating technical craftsmanship more than make up for its narrative familiarity.
Exhausted by the demands of his job, Philadelphia Sixers talent scout Stanley Sugarman (Adam Sandler) jumps from plane to plane, hotel to hotel, and court to basketball court around the world. Not only has it separated him from his loving wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and their aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull), it has drastically dampened his career ambitions of one day coaching the team he loves. However, his sacrifice and determination have not escaped the notice of Rex (Robert Duvall), owner and longtime friend of the Sixers, who promotes him to assistant coach but dies shortly thereafter.
The tragedy jeopardizes Stan’s position with the new owner, Rex’s smug, argumentative son Vince (Ben Foster). Desperate for a winning move, Stan travels to Spain, where he overhears streetball player Bo Cruz (NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) bringing the “wow” sound to the “crowd”. Tall, talented, and soft-hearted, he values his close relationship with his mother (Maria Botto) and precocious baby daughter (Ainhoa Pillet). He’s also a virtual stranger with a checkered past. The two misfits embark on a quest to connect with their peers and prove themselves. But just as the couple begins to reach dizzying heights, seemingly insurmountable challenges threaten to set them back.
Between the story’s formulaic and familiar beats, screenwriters Taylor Materne and Will Fetters delve into the unspoken subtext that gives the characters their dynamic engines. Stan and Bo’s internal and external missions are well defined and tangible, as is Vince’s modus operandi when taking action against Stan, his father’s preferred surrogate son. Women in her world, who are traditionally tertiary in films like this, are blessedly important: Teresa, Alex, and Katherine (Heidi Gardner), Vince’s sister who holds stocks, are integral forces, flexing their own agency while also flexing the male arcs strengthen .
While the script delivers the expected, it’s the stylistic flourishes of Zagar and his creative staff that deliver the unexpected. The image hosts an incredibly touching use of montage, musicality, and composition. This is best demonstrated in Act Two’s electrifying workout sequence – a mandatory inclusion in any good sports film, but brilliantly enhanced by this team’s driving sound and vision. Visually and aurally symphonic, this segment combines a rousing hip-hop banger with Dan Deacon’s score, diffuse lighting from cinematographer Zak Mulligan and sharp editing from editors Tom Costain, Brian M. Robinson and Keiko Deguchi. It mimics the intense focus and revving engine in the athlete’s psyche, backed by Sandler’s motivating roar.
Sandler gives a frank, humanistic performance as a hapless, discouraged soul who hungers for challenge and change and stays within well-managed boundaries of sympathy. He is a confident actor, adept at both ease and the more dramatic challenges of the role. Newcomer Hernangómez is an impressive on-screen partner for Sandler, delivering vulnerability and nuanced grace. Also of note is that the bevy of basketball star cameos doesn’t falter; their addition – which would otherwise be considered a cheap trick – lends an air of authenticity to the image.
However, occasionally clunky aspects make for a few minor distractions. The upcoming act changes are distracting and herald conflicts that are executed with less finesse than the film benefits. The script also spells it all out instead of having faith in its audience. And while it’s sewn into a major character-building development, that pivotal moment when something goes viral feels contrived — especially since the rest of the film doesn’t rely on those sorts of amenities for the most part.
Although it’s not a total slam dunk, Hurry plays admirably with a lot of passion, artistry, and intelligence. Predictable combat leads to surprisingly resonant depths, evident both in their technical prowess and in some heartfelt feelings about rising above adversity. And while viewers direct audiences to look one way, the filmmakers brilliantly zigzag in the other direction, adding depth and dimension to these characters’ puzzles. In a stacked book of well-known plays, this is perhaps this film’s smartest maneuver.