Remaking beloved properties has become a generally problematic proposition. Sure, you can capitalize on a bankable name, but you risk alienating die-hards that made it a hit in the first place. Such films can also be a product of their time and feel out of place when adapted to a more modern context.
Case in point: White Men Can’t Jump, a made-for-Hulu film that strips off all but the most superficial vestiges of its predecessor. (The remake begins streaming on the service Friday.)
The original remains a dynamo — a runaway train of lightning-fast wit, a masterclass in chemistry from Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez, and a legitimately exciting, mostly believable basketball film. Ron Shelton’s pic about street hustlers who team up, backstab each other and ultimately form a friendship is a seminal film from the 1990s, a fun-loving companion to hardscrabble racially-themed dramas like Boyz n the Hood or Menace II Society.
It’s certainly a snapshot of early-’90s lower-middle-class male culture, teeming with racial tension between its leads that was reflected in society — simultaneously lampooning ghetto life and celebrating it while showing that for many men, at least in the ’90s, money might talk and bullshit certainly walks, but basketball is a common language that could momentarily unite two often-bickering races.
So fast-forward 30 years, where the remake retains its title in the same year a 6’2” white guy won the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest. Neither do the characters in this version make the titular claim; they even point out that it’s an outdated way of thinking.
So: Why are we remaking this film in a modern context?
Played here by Sinqua Walls and Jack Harlow, the two leads bicker with each other for no real reason. Their barbs have no crackle, and they feel pained to even mention race. When they do, it feels like two people arguing for the same side. Smashed are the stereotypes that defined Wesley and Woody’s rivalry, replaced by R-rated Disney Channel dialogue where the N-word is uttered so awkwardly you can practically hear the pronunciation of a hard R.
The original film hinged on the ability of Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) to fool and hustle Black streetball players, with Harrelson dressing like a white boy who enjoyed urban fashions, not realizing how ridiculous he looked. Underneath, he was a tiger ready to pounce.
Harlow’s Jeremy, though, played basketball for Gonzaga University and dresses like a nerd by choice. He works as a personal trainer and has one of those self-conscious fake-zen dudebro philosophies; in movie terms, that means he mimics meditating in a way that makes everyone look sideways at him. Jeremy doesn’t hustle so much as annoy, buzzing around the court and making passive-aggressive remarks until challenged. He hawks “detox drinks” that look like muddy water and ambles about in calf-building shoes and weighted vests — a doofy loser hanging on to the life he wasn’t able to ever actually start, not a carefully cultivated con man.
Once a blue-chip basketball prospect, Walls’ Kamal has unresolved trauma from poor choices in an on-court incident that cost him his scholarship and career. Walls certainly lacks the bluster Snipes brought to Sidney Deane and the surprising vulnerability Snipes allowed to creep out. If you squint, Walls resembles Dwyane Wade, and that’s probably the most interesting thing about his character.
Jeremy and Kamal argue over a pickup game in a scene that’s meant to mirror the meeting of Billy and Sidney but which feels like a poor recreation. The rest of the film centers on the two-on-two tournament they hope to win because Jeremy learns of a stem-cell treatment that he thinks will regenerate his ailing knees and punch his ticket to the NBA’s G-League. (One note: It seems unlikely, as a former college athlete and professional-sports fan, that Jeremy wouldn’t previously know about stem-cell treatments. I’m hardly more than a casual sports fan, and I know both Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning had such procedures several years ago.)
Kamal, meanwhile, hopes to give his wife a better life, but his temper and lack of job skills get in his way. Kamal’s dad (the late Lance Reddick as a less grating variation on LaVar Ball) was right behind him, and he’s driven by the thought that he let his father down.
Laura Harring (Spider-Man: Homecoming) plays Jeremy’s girlfriend, Tatiana, inheriting the defacto Perez role of Gloria. In the original film, Gloria had her own arc. Because the remake is a movie about bros being bros, Tatiana is never more than the disapproving girlfriend.
It’s one of many significant differences from the original film. One might be tempted to call direct comparisons unfair, but this version also calls out the original time and again in ways that feel like cheap imitation rather than loving homage.
Fans of the original know that when the guys play a game on a court surrounded by a high fence, a fight will break out, ending in gunfire. This time, though, the attacker uses a flamethrower.
The two-on-two tournament is there but without the sense of fun or importance (and the sudden existence of another tournament is a bit of a twist alert). One character wears the flipped-bill cycling cap like Sidney does … but it’s a baby.
There are trash-talking dustups between opposing players but none of the rapid-fire stream of insults that made the original such a joy. Instead of “your mother’s an astronaut,” we get cracks about the size of someone’s ears. No cameos from any original actors either, which isn’t surprising given the entire production’s slapdash nature. And the original looked like Los Angeles; this has a bright sitcom palette, a two-camera sheen that could take place anywhere.
If you’ll pardon the term, this film is completely whitewashed — sanitized within an inch of its life. Stripped of its name as a generic two-dudes-playing-basketball film, well, it would still be bad. But at least it wouldn’t have the specter of a much better film as a dropshadow behind it.
If you ever watched White Men Can’t Jump and found that it had too much personality, wished the trash talking was toned down, wanted more overtly choreographed basketball scenes and thought it just needed to move a little slower, well, the remake might be the movie for you.
For the rest of us, it’s one more regretful reminder that good sports movies exist. This just ain’t one of them.