Skip to main content

Hustle review: Adam Sandler’s sports drama comes out on top

In 2019, Adam Sandler proved he still has what it takes to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile and charismatic performers with his performance in the Safdie Brothers’ adrenaline-fueled Uncut Gems. Not since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love had Sandler played a character so different from his usual goofball archetype, and he earned some well-deserved acclaim for his turn as the film’s self-destructive lead. But Uncut Gems did more than just reaffirm Sandler’s status as a more versatile leading man than his filmography would have you believe.

The film also offered the promise of being the first entry in a new chapter in Sandler’s career, one featuring more variety and legitimately dramatic stories from the Happy Gilmore star than viewers had seen in previous years. While it remains to be seen if that’s the direction Sandler’s career will ultimately take in the coming years, Hustle certainly seems to suggest that it might be.

The new film is the latest production between Sandler and Netflix, but unlike many of the other titles that the two parties’ collaboration has produced, Hustle is a decidedly straightforward drama. Sandler anchors the underdog sports film with one of his most grounded everyman performances to date, and while Hustle doesn’t do anything that one could qualify as game-changing, it still manages to land enough of its shots to walk away victorious.

Once upon a time in Spain…

Bo Cruz and Stanley Sugarman sit on bleachers together in Hustle.
Scott Yamano / Netflix

Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, Hustle follows Stanley Sugarman (Sandler), a man with a complicated past who has spent the majority of his adulthood working as a basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. When he grows tired of waiting for the team’s arrogant owner, Vince Merrick (Ben Foster), to give him the promotion he’s earned, Stanley takes matters into his own hands by recruiting a Spanish basketball player named Bo Cruz (real-life basketball player Juancho Hernangómez), whom he discovers during a business trip abroad.

Stanley firmly believes Bo has what it takes to be one of the NBA’s top players. However, he and Bo quickly realize that, if they want to achieve their respective dreams, that means they’ll have to work together to make it in a league that seems determined to keep them both out of it. Their struggle to succeed takes many turns along the way that will be predictable to anyone who has seen a handful of other sports movies, but the relationship between Sandler and Hernangómez is authentic enough to make the clichéd nature of their bond less damaging than it might otherwise be.

The same can be said for Hustle as a whole. Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ script for the film delivers all of the beats that viewers will likely want it to, including a lengthy training montage and several rousing, motivational speeches, and the movie never seems remotely interested in subverting viewers’ expectations or turning certain clichés on their head. The film is, instead, totally comfortable telling a familiar story, and while that prevents it from becoming one of the genre’s Hall of Fame titles, it doesn’t stop it from making a tangible mark.

An uphill battle

Alex, Teresa, Bo, and Stanley stand together on a basketball court in Hustle.
Scott Yamano/Netflix

That’s because Hustle always makes sure to put its characters at the very center of its story, and it invests in them completely from its first scene to its last. That’s especially true for Stanley, whom Sandler brings to life with an understated performance that feels reminiscent of his turn in 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories. However, it’s a testament to Sandler’s presence as a performer that he manages to maintain Stanley’s restrained nature without ever tamping down his own charisma or likability.

The older he gets, the more Sandler seems to resemble the kind of American character actors that were prolific in the 1970s and 80s, and Hustle puts his increasingly rugged appearance to good use. Opposite him, Hernangómez brings real heart and pathos to Bo Cruz, a talented and hardworking player whose love for his family emerges as both his greatest strength and biggest weakness. As Teresa, Stanley’s wife, Queen Latifah also turns in a reliably charismatic performance in an underwritten role. There’s enough chemistry present between her and Sandler that it’s hard not to wonder why it took so long for them to play a couple on-screen.

While his direction occasionally veers more into music video territory than it should, Jeremiah Zagar often succeeds at keeping Hustle’s visual focus on its characters. The film’s sports sequences aren’t anything to write home about, which may come as a disappointment to viewers, but Zagar’s grounded, intimate visual style makes up for the lackluster nature of Hustle’s basketball set pieces.

Never back down

Bo Cruz leans down while talking to Stanley Sugarman in Hustle.
Scott Yamano / Netflix

There’s an earnestness to Zagar’s direction that helps imbue Hustle with a lot of heart, and it’s clear that he’s not the only one involved in the film who felt passionate about getting it right. Sandler is, famously, a big basketball fan in real life, and his desire to deliver a solid and entertaining sports film is apparent in every frame of Hustle. Although there are moments when the film’s script goes a little off the rails and edges into overly saccharine territory, Hustle nearly always manages to right itself.

Ultimately, the film is a well-made piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment, one that boasts several memorable performances from its lineup of capable actors. That said, it’s the earnestness running through Hustle that makes it land as well as it does. That’s because, as Stanley tells Bo at one point in Hustle’s second act, there’s no use in pursuing something if you’re not passionate about it. Fortunately, when it comes to Hustle, there’s plenty of passion and heart to go around.

Hustle premieres Wednesday, June 8 on Netflix.

Editors' Recommendations

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
Where the Crawdads Sing review: a bland murder mystery
Kya Clark sits against a tree in Where the Crawdads Sing.

For a film that takes such great pains to immerse viewers in the environment of one specific corner of the United States, Where the Crawdads Sing is shockingly bland. Adapted from Delia Owens’ best-selling 2018 novel, the new film explores the life of a young woman who is forced to raise herself in a marsh in North Carolina. The film, which takes place throughout the 1950s and 1960s, spends a considerable amount of time discussing and showcasing the murky wetland that emerges as its protagonist’s unlikely home.

However, Where the Crawdads Sing never truly takes advantage of its backwoods setting. Even when a shocking murder in the film’s central marsh threatens to turn the life of its young heroine upside down, Where the Crawdads Sing remains surprisingly unimaginative, and its refusal to commit to the darker gothic elements of its story renders the film lifeless. Consequently, what could have been a moody and immersive murder mystery instead ends up feeling more like a safe cross between a late-era Nicholas Sparks adaptation and an uninspired, psychologically thin character study.
A suspicious death

Read more
Both Sides of the Blade review: Juliette Binoche shines in cutting domestic drama
Vincent Lindon and Juliette Binoche canoodle in the water in Both Sides of the Blade.

There’s no premise that Claire Denis can’t shape into an obscure object of desire, no prose she can’t translate into poetry. Both Sides of the Blade, the latest stateside release from this brilliant French filmmaker, looks on the surface like the most straightforward and even commonplace of domestic dramas: The story of a middle-aged couple whose cozy life is ruptured by the reappearance of an old flame from their shared romantic past. Yet here, once more, the director of such dazzling enigmas as Beau Travail and the recent High Life has lent her material — pulled this time from a novel by Christine Angot — a beguiling and befuddling alien rhythm. Denis crams more mystery into a single transitional cut than most movies manage across their entire runtimes.

The opening minutes are suspiciously idyllic. Just as few movies that begin with a wedding end in anything but tragedy, it’s a bad sign that we first see Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) in a state of holiday bliss, splashing joyfully off an unidentified coast, before falling into passionate, carnal embrace upon return to their chicly compact Parisian flat. Their history is murkier than the crystal-clear water of this prologue. Below the surface of their contentment lurks some unfinished business, foreshadowed by the gorgeously ominous pulse of a new score by Tindersticks, Denis’s house band of choice.

Read more
Black Bird review: An outstanding cast lifts Apple TV+’s dark series
Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton sit at a small table in prison, facing each other, in a scene from Black Bird.

Crime dramas based on real events are having quite a moment right now -- and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The real-life stories that inspire the shows have a potent, macabre appeal, and the actors involved in them are afforded the opportunity to explore some extremely dark places through a wide range of fascinating, all-too-real characters.

The Apple TV+ series Black Bird is a sterling example of just such a project, and elevates an already compelling real-world story with powerful performances from leads Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser -- the latter of whom makes a strong case for himself when the next award season comes round.

Read more