'Hustle' review: Sandler NBA drama sticks to the playbook

Adam Sandler plays a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers in straightforward sports tale.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Hustle," Adam Sandler plays an NBA scout named Stanley Sugerman, which makes it sound like one of those movies where Sandler plays a buffoon who inherits a basketball team from his father and then wins the NBA Finals with a team that consists of himself, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Chris Rock and Shaq.  

In reality, "Hustle" is a straightforward sports drama with some comedic elements, and it lands somewhat left of "Uncut Gems" but far right from "Billy Madison" and "Happy Gilmore" on the Sandler Scale of Seriousness. It plays out in rather typical sports movie fashion, so maybe it wouldn't have been a bad thing if Sandler crazied it up a notch or two. 

Juancho Hernangomez and Adam Sandler in "Hustle."

Sugerman is a lifer with the Philadelphia 76ers — LeBron James is a producer on the project, which may have helped secure rights to real NBA teams and players — who is getting bumped up to the role of assistant coach after many years spent out on the road scouting. But when team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) suddenly dies, his son Vince (Ben Foster) demotes Sugerman and puts him back in the field to find the key to the team's next championship. 

He finds it in Bo Cruz (pro baller Juancho Hernangómeza, currently on the Utah Jazz), a streetball player whom he finds hustling locals for cash on playgrounds in Spain. Cruz has all the tools but he's rough around the edges; he hasn't played organized basketball in years, and he's got a temper which once landed him assault charges.   

Sugerman mentors Cruz, who meets his nemesis in a top draft prospect named Kermit Wilts (Minnesota Timberwolf Anthony Edwards), who tests his resolve and mental stability. Along the way there's a parade of cameos from the likes of Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Mark Cuban, Kenny Smith, Trae Young, Doc Rivers, Dirk Nowitzki, Luka Dončić and more, making "Hustle" something of the "Jerry Maguire" of the NBA world. 

Except director Jeremiah Zagar is no Cameron Crowe, the off-court storylines (Sugerman is happily married to his wife Teresa, played by Queen Latifah, and he wants to be home more for his daughter Alex, played by Jordan Hull) don't have as much intrigue as the basketball scenes, and there's a standard rise-fall-rise again formula to the Bo Cruz story (and several "Rocky IV"-style training montages to boot). Zagar, along with screenwriters Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, does get points for a scene where Sugerman helps to get the word out about his recruit by using social media, a rare instance of the movies getting social media right, but there's nothing here that's a slam dunk. Consider "Hustle" more of an easy layup — good for two, but it's not going to end up on "SportsCenter."





Rated R: for language

Running time: 118 minutes

On Netflix