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The Hurricane

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Hurricane

Starring: Denzel Washington, John Hannah
Director: Norman Jewison
Rated: R
RunTime: 139 Minutes
Release Date: January 1999
Genres: Drama, Sports

*Also starring: David Paymer, Liev Schreiber, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Rod Steiger, Deborah Unger, Dan Hedaya

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Coincidentally, Univeral has released two movies at the same time dealing with the theme of injustice toward members of minority groups. One is "Snow Falling on Cedars," in which a Japanese-American is on trial for the murder of a white man. The other is "The Hurricane," in which an African-American is found guilty of murder and incarcerated for nineteen years. To plagiarize a paragraph from my own "Cedars" review....When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, critics of the jury system and of lawyers' tactics were quick to pounce on the verdict. Given the racial makeup of the jury and the defense team's alleged playing of the race card, cynics and detractors in general were quick to say that the decision was based not on the evidence but on the willingness of minority jurors to free an African-American simply because of his race. What we all know, though, is that the situation has almost always been the reverse: jurors have been prone to find innocent people guilty if the defendants were members of minority groups.

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is a perfect example of a man convicted by a jury that was swayed by a prosecution team suffused with racial prejudice. That point is made convincingly enough in the film's most cynically humorous line. When two patrolmen pull over a car carrying the title character (Denzel Washington) on his way home, one remarks, "We're looking for two Negroes in a white car." Responds Carter, "Any two will do?" Norman Jewison's biopic is a dramatization of a major segment of the life of a Paterson, New Jersey prizefighter who had defeated Emile Griffith in 1963 to become the welterweight champion of the world.

Like many who take up boxing as a way to enter the middle class, Carter came from a back of poverty and was in trouble with the police since he had stabbed a prominent white man in self-defense. From the time he was arrested and sent to a juvenile home, he was pursued by a modern Javert, Police Lieutenant Della Pesce--described as a bulldog with glasses (Dan Hedaya)--determined to frame Carter for a triple murder he did not commit.

The film is as high-minded as similar works like "Chariots of Fire" and, like the football film "Any Given Sunday" which was released just days before its opening, gives the audience a taste of the legalized violence which is part and parcel of contact sports. Unfortunately, although director Norman Jewison utilizes the usual tricks of the trade such as frequent flashbacks, the story is told in a conventional manner more suited to HBO television than to the big screen. Featuring an impressive performance by the always reliable Denzel Washington (who lost 40 pounds for the role), "The Hurricane" is a feel-good movie with a razzle-dazzle ending that could conceivable bring an audience to its feet at the conclusion. But Jewison brings little imagination to his dramatization, turning the story into a disappointingly straight bad cop-good victim yarn.

Jewison splits his camera into two segments: one deals with the struggle that The Hurricane undergoes to transcend his boyhood days as a victim of a racially biased judicial system that sent him away and motivated him to turn his body into a weapon. The other focuses on a Brooklyn-raised teen, Lesa Martin (Vicellous Shannon) whom the local school system was unable to reach and who is now living in Toronto with three unusual white people who had observed his intelligence and are tutoring him--Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger), Sam (Liev Schreiber) and Terry (the British actor, John Hannah). Finding Carter's memoirs, "The 16th Round," at a library sale, Lesra is inspired and becomes bent on communicating with the prisoner and doing what he can to get the man freed.

Norman Jewison comes prepared for a movie like this one, having directed "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967, a crime thriller with racial overtones. That story of a redneck southern sheriff who accepts the help of a black detective to solve a murder seems tougher, more atmospheric, with more cinematic effects that his current offering. Though Carter was not exonerated for the crime but rather freed because a federal judge (Rod Steiger) found the case tainted by racial bigotry, Jewsion makes the man a saint. The picture is all too solemn, the somewhat fictionalized epistolary exchange between Carter and the unconvincing Lesra dragging the tale down to terminal solmenity.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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