A rare example of a clever, funny remake of a film heralded by some as a classic, White Men Can’t Jump actually improves upon the film that inspired it. A modern day updating of Ron Shelton’s deeply flawed, but well regarded 1991 film of the same name starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as a couple of streetball hustlers trying to get a big payday on the playground courts of Los Angeles, this take on White Men Can’t Jump retains the premise and general character sketches while strengthening the material and pleasingly changing the overall vibe. Some might say this is sacrilege, but the original White Men Can’t Jump wasn’t a great movie; leaden paced, not nearly as funny as one remembers it being, but certainly not lacking in charisma. This version of White Men Can’t Jump goes a long way towards rectifying the faults of the original and finding new ways to surprise viewers that might be expecting just another by-the-numbers reboot.
Back in 2010, while he was still in high school, basketball player Kamal Allen (Sinqua Walls) was a top prospect who seemed destined for the NBA. Helped along by his media savvy father (the late Lance Reddick, in a small but memorable performance), the world was Kamal’s for the taking, until life took an unexpected emotional detour, leading to him getting into a fight with a fan. Kamal’s offers dried up almost overnight, and now he works as a delivery man to support his partner and child, occasionally meeting up with friends for games at the local rec centre and shooting down any offers to play anything remotely organized. Jeremy (Jack Harlow) is a white baller who similarly fell on hard times. Once a collegiate star on the court, a pair of blown ACLs reduced Jeremy to the level of a hustler. Whenever he’s not duping rubes with his laid back hippie image into playing against him, Jeremy is living moment-to-moment, trying to sell nutritional cleanses and basketball lessons in a bid to keep up with his bills and painkiller addiction. Although they don’t hit it off immediately when they cross paths, Kamal and Jeremy both need money desperately, and together they decide to raise enough cash as hustlers so they can cover the fees to enter a legitimate big money b-ball tournament.
One of the biggest assets to Shelton’s original film was the character based approach, and writers Kenya Barris (You People, Girls Trip) and Doug Hall (who collaborated with Barris on Black-ish) retain that bedrock without merely recycling the same archetypes. In the 1991 film, Snipes and Harrelson played a couple of washouts whose best days seemed well behind them. In the 2022 version of a similar story, Walls and Harlow are playing people who still have a lot of potential and plenty to give back if they can get out of their own way. Kamal is serious about basketball – almost never talking trash – but he’s also a disillusioned hot head. Jeremy can’t stop talking trash and refuses to give up on his dreams of making to to the NBA feeder G-league, even though he probably should because he’s an absolute mess. They couldn’t be different, and yet, they belong with each other. They know their worth, but the cockiness has been dialled down considerably from their source material surrogates. Nothing feels missing, though, and the relationship between these characters is richer and more plausible as a result. Similarly, the relationship these guys have to their increasingly frustrated girlfriends (Teyana Taylor and Laura Harrier) are more interesting and less dismissive than they were in the previous film.
White Men Can’t Jump further establishes Walls as an actor to watch. Walls’ struggles keep the film grounded even when it’s trying to be funny, and whenever the character has to match any of their counterparts quip for quip, he’s just as razor sharp. The antagonistic and friendly chemistry Walls has with Harlow is also surprising when one considers that the latter has never acted in a feature length fictional film before. Recording artist Harlow acquits himself perfectly to the character of Jeremy, who isn’t an easy one to play. Harlow balances Jeremy’s bravado, vices, and quiet struggles exceptionally well for a novice actor, delivering a turn that feels seasoned beyond his experience level. Walls and Harlow work just as well apart as they do together, further rectifying a downside from the source, where things only livened up whenever Snipes and Harrelson were playing off each other.
The jokes are generally funnier this time out, too, with less emphasis placed on put downs and more of an eye towards being more thoughtfully witty and perceptive. Some of the pop culture nods here might age poorly over time (same as the original), but for the most part the banter in White Men Can’t Jump 2K23 is snappy, well delivered, and has more hits than bricks. The general good nature of this effort also helps improve upon the story’s occasional lapses into more serious topics, like Kamal’s relationship to his ailing father and Jeremy’s borderline delusional belief that he can achieve his dreams if he’s simply able to barrel through the near constant pain he experiences.
White Men Can’t Jump is directed by music video veteran Calmatic, who airballed earlier this year with his far less successful remake of another 90s “classic,” House Party. This is a far better use of his talents as a storyteller and stylist. There’s not much fat and filler to be found in this version of White Men Can’t Jump (a rare example of a remake that’s roughly twenty minutes shorter than its source instead of ballooning the running time), the SoCal locations pop with energy and vibrancy, and the basketball action is inventively staged and choreographed. There’s a clear focus and vision to this remake that’s refreshing, and Calmatic’s work never seems like a phoned in, cash grabbing double dip.
While some sports movie purists might balk at the though of remounting one of the biggest hits of the early 90s, White Men Can’t Jump finds a lot of new ways and paths to justify its existence. It’s essentially the same core story, but more refined and thoughtful. It’s one of the biggest surprises of the year thus far.
White Men Can’t Jump starts streaming on Disney+ in Canada and Hulu in the United States on Friday, May 19, 2023.
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