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'THE HURRICANE' NOT BOXED IN BY ITS PREDICTABLE PLOT.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

Even though it telegraphs its punches at almost every turn, ``The Hurricane'' manages to score a cinematic victory (albeit, one short of a knockout) with the one-two punch of its sensational story and the outstanding acting of Denzel Washington. In bringing the saga of boxer Rubin ``Hurricane'' Carter to the big screen, director Norman Jewison has fashioned an old-fashioned civil rights story invery much the same activist spirit as a couple of his other movies: ``In the Heat of the Night'' and ``A Soldier's Story.''

Like its predecessors, ``The Hurricane'' is a solidly crafted effort that waves its crusading flag a bit too often for its own good. The film often feels like a collection of bits and pieces from other films - prison movies, courtroom sagas and dramas of the downtrodden - but the force of Washington's performance largely renders such quibbling irrelevant. This movie works, and if its plot mechanics are a tad predictable, it certainly doesn't make the audience's teary-eyed response any less meaningful.

Carter's plight was a cause celebre in the 1970s; Bob Dylan wrote a song about him and made it the centerpiece of a tour. A middleweight boxer with enough talent to win the title, Carter was arrested (along with a companion) and convicted of murdering three people in a 1966 shooting. The evidence was entirely circumstantial, and the damning testimony came from sources whose credibility was open to question.

Nevertheless, Carter was found guilty by an all-white jury, largely (according to the film) because of a vendetta waged by a racist New Jersey police detective (Dan Hedeya) who had nursed a grudge against Carter for many years. While in prison, Carter determined that he would live solely in his mind and spirit. In a crucial act that ultimately helped determine his fate, Carter wrote his autobiography, hoping that someone would take notice of the injustice of his condition.

Someone - a most unlikely someone - did. Years after it was written, an African-American youth named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon) bought Carter's book for a quarter at a library sale. It was the first book Lesra had ever bought, and he devoured it, relating to Carter's struggle to achieve his dreams and maintain his dignity. Brought up by poor, illiterate parents, Lesra was living in Canada with three white activists (John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger and Liev Schreiber) who he ultimately convinces to take up Carter's cause.

The relationship between Carter and Lesra, beginning with letters and advancing to prison visits, forms the emotional thrust of the story, and, indeed, is one of the movie's strong suits. The three Canadians (a distillation of nine actual people who worked on Carter's case) never quite become distinct characters, though, existing mostly to move the story along.

But the story, which is fairly faithfully told, is an engrossing one, even when it is sometimes forced to focus on minutiae to explain the specifics of Carter's legal maneuverings. Washington's forceful performance is one of the year's best, delivering a complex portrait of a man who is both heroic and human.

Washington is completely convincing in every aspect of the role, including the film's boxing scenes. If he does not earn at least an Oscar nomination, it will be an injustice, although a minor one compared to the injuries suffered by the man he so movingly portrays in ``The Hurricane.''

The facts

The film: ``The Hurricane'' (R; language and some violence).

The stars: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, John Hannah, Dan Hedaya.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon. Released by Universal Pictures.

Running time: Two hours, 26 minutes.

Playing: Cineplex Odeon Universal City Cinemas; Pacific's Winnetka Stadium 21 in Chatsworth; General Cinema Avco in Westwood; Magic Johnson Theatres in Baldwin Hills; Edwards Long Beach Stadium 26.

Our rating: Three stars.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Denzel Washington is a boxer convicted of a triple murder he didn't commit in ``The Hurricane.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 29, 1999
Words:665
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