Director Calmatic’s remake of Ron Shelton’s raucous, low-intensity 1992 sports comedy White Men Can’t Jump is a slimmer but imperfect version of this tale about two basketball Hitlers, one black and one white. This new version, written by Kenya Barris and Doug Hall, cleverly edits out the “Jeopardy!” Subplot to the original – perhaps because no one has ever been able to surpass Rosie Perez’s unique performance.
Another upgrade is that this remake focuses on Kamal (Sinqua Walls), a failed player who may be looking for a second chance. Ten years ago, he was a high school legend with great things ahead of him, but anger issues, among other things, got him into trouble. Now he works as a delivery man and plays pickup truck games. He resists the suggestion of his friends Speedy (Vince Staples) and Renzo (Myles Bullock) to enter 2v2 tournaments until a weirdly dressed, detoxing white boy named Jeremy (Jack Harlow) comes to his house and beats him in a shootout.
As Jeremy, the white man thought to be a bad basketball player, Jack Harlow’s film debut lacks the sly, goofy verve that Woody Harrelson displayed in the original. The main reason this update is throwing a stone is because miscast Harlow is hardly the charming rascal that Harrelson’s character, Billy Hoyle, was. In addition, Harlow, who is the focus of the film’s B story, is lazy towards D. He should flatter himself as a man who needs a quick buck, suffers from knee problems and has problems with his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier), a dancer . (He lies to her about the pain pills he takes and his gambling.) These storylines should pique viewers’ interest in Jeremy, but they deflate the film because Harlow has no charisma whatsoever. He also fouls when he tries to sell his lines, whether they’re sincere or wryly funny. The movie is at its best when Jeremy is on the bench.
In contrast, Kamal von Walls is the film’s point guard, carrying the film with his dexterity as well as his blank and restrained facial expression. Kamal’s character differs from Wesley Snipes’ swanky Sidney Deane, which is a definite improvement. Kamal not only struggles with his professional disappointment, but also with a dying father (the late Lance Reddick) who was his strongest advocate. Repeated flashbacks to his younger days that reflect his emotional pain and regret seem unnecessary to him. Adding to his problems is that Kamal’s wife Imani (Teyana Taylor) wants to open a hair salon and needs money to make her dream come true. But when Kamal refuses to take a selfie for a customer on his route, he loses his mind and then loses his shift as well. He then decides to team up with Jeremy to win $25,000 in a tournament.
“White Men Can’t Jump” draws on some of the racial tensions between Jeremy and Kamal, but some of their conversations, such as when Jeremy says inappropriate things about how well Kamal can express himself and like Kamal, “Doesn’t yell though brutally [he is] “Chocolate Chocolate” is cheesy rather than funny. Even when Jamal reluctantly admits to liking Ed Sheeran and Jeremy replies, “I like your character,” it fails.
Teyana Taylor in “White Men Can’t Jump” (20th Century Studios)
The film tries too hard to extract humor from pop culture references. At one point, Jeremy is warned that if he takes too many pills, he’ll “be on Hollywood Boulevard doing TikTok dances without a phone.” There are at least two references to OnlyFans, neither of which are funny, and a silly running joke about edibles in cupcakes that might have been amusing 30 years ago but is out of date today. At least Vince Staples and Myles Bullock make for a few laughs with their trash talk. (And this version pays homage to the original by including a line about going to Sizzler.)
Another problem is that Calmatic doesn’t give his movie enough energy. The basketball hype scenes based on old-school pinpricks, including the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” and War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” lack suspense. The film doesn’t quite share its characters’ love of the game. The first tournament in Venice, which goes poorly, doesn’t capitalize on the rivalry Kamal and Jeremy have against familiar opponents, while the big $500,000 Village Classic at the end of the film doesn’t have enough rivalry to motivate Jamal and Jeremy to succeed.
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However, there are some inspirational scenes outside of court. A speech Imani gives to encourage Kamal is great and Teyana Taylor, fresh off her award-winning star performance in A Thousand and One, provides excellent support. Equally moving is a conversation Kamal has with his father, who is in the hospital.
Walls’ personable presence is what scores in this version of “White Men Can’t Jump,” dubbed “ankle crusher” in basketball slang, a particularly effective crossover that has the defender slip or fall. There are just enough decent elements here, including a hilarious cameo by pro baller Blake Griffin, to warrant watching.
White Men Can’t Jump begins streaming on Hulu on May 19th.
Film reviews by Gary Kramer