Image via Disney+ U.K
Remakes get a bad rap nowadays, and for mostly good reasons. Sometimes – at least when a franchise or film isn’t being drained of profitability – updating a classic movie or show can lead to great results; just look at 21 Jump Street. Sadly, White Men Can’t Jump, a remake of the 1992 favorite of the same name, flounders too much in parts to really live up to the original, despite some bright spots and genuine laughs.
The plot of the update is broadly similar to the original. Sinqua Walls and rapper Jack Harlow star as Kamal and Jeremy respectively. The former is a former high school superstar with a supportive father (the late, great Lance Reddick) whose career was derailed by his arrest after he assaulted a fan in the stands. The latter’s basketball chances, however, failed thanks to two torn ACLs, although he still delusionally believes he can make it. Jeremy still sometimes plays, but he lies to his long-term girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Harrier) about it, pretending instead to be training younger players who want to make it.
After Jeremy wins a shootout against Kamal for $300 at a local gym, the pair embark on a hustling tour of LA, trying to earn enough money to enter a basketball tournament with a massive cash prize. They succeed, only to crash out in the first round thanks to Kamal’s struggles with pressure, which leads to a rupture in the burgeoning friendship.
Encouraged by his partner Imani (Teyana Taylor), Kamal reaches out to Jeremy, and the pair end up playing in another, larger tournament which they win. Queue the “one year later” montage, and Kamal has been signed to a 10-day contract with the Lakers, while Jeremy is training superstars instead of YouTube ballers. A happy ending after all.
Despite the fact it falls flat in a lot of places, there are plenty of positives. It’s beautifully shot, the soundtrack is worth downloading as a Spotify playlist, and there were definitely bits that were hilarious. One of the charms of the original was the race-based humor, which toed the line to the point of discomfort, and that’s been mostly retained – although only because some of the best lines are lifted straight from the original script. The depiction of mental health and the effects of pressure on the psyche are interesting, and the basketball scenes captivate, even if you’re not a huge fan of the game — made more impressive by the fact that Harlow and Walls, both capable ballers, did their own sequences. Plus, Kamal’s relationship with his father is nice to see, if not a bit hammy.
With that said, there’s just something missing about this update. It’s not because the transition into modern times is sloppy — in fact, the integration of tech and social media into the storyline is one of the most natural aspects. It’s more that it’s lacking the grit that made the original so entertaining. The stakes are there, but they just seem much lower in the 2023 version. Whereas you felt a real sense of danger when Snipes and Harrelson were hustling across courts in L.A, with Walls and Harlow there just isn’t that edge, even in a scene that includes a flamethrower and the boys getting chased out of a court.
There was potential for more menace, too: Jeremy owes his dealer money, which we never really see followed through. And, while there is violence in the film, especially when we see Kamal’s anger issues get the better of him, it feels stylized and contained. Perhaps it’s because LA at the time of the original was more of a powder keg (the Rodney King riots took place just before the original’s release) and that shines through in the 1992 iteration, whereas now everything seems to be sanitized and created for content, even the fights. A shot-for-shot remake would have never worked, but this movie, which is effectively the original massaged into a more modern shape, doesn’t do enough to make the viewer believe what’s going on is realistic.
With that all said, these are problems that could be carried by better performances, but the acting simply isn’t there. Walls is certainly more believable, but Harlow — in his onscreen debut — doesn’t have the range of charm of Harrelson, and his arc feels wooden because of it. More importantly, the chemistry between the pair is lacking. Snipes and Harrelson made the first film so iconic because you believed their relationship, but Harlow and Walls just seem like they’re faking, whether they’re pretending to be angry each other, or in one of the many heartfelt scenes they share throughout.
Although we all appreciate a tight movie, White Men Can’t Jump could have used to the update to explore a few other aspects of modern basketball culture, especially the use of painkillers by top (and less than top) athletes. Jeremy uses them to help manage the hurt in his knees, but we only get one scene where he’s intoxicated, and that’s after Tatiana briefly leaves him. Despite the very real opioid crisis sweeping America, Jeremey seems to be more addicted to basketball than the pills, seeming to junk the drugs with ease, which leaves a really interesting potential storyline off the table.
When it comes down to it, there isn’t too much wrong with White Men Can’t Jump V2.0. While the writing sometimes is as subtle as dunking on someone, the characters are mostly likable, and the action sequences are exciting. There’s also some good jokes in there, even though some elicit mild smiles instead of full-on belly laughs.
Yet, there also isn’t much right about the movie, either. It misses a lot of what made the original so good, which was the underlying tension: between Harrelson and Snipes, between white and black people, and between the rich and poor of LA. If you like the 1992 classic you might enjoy this update, but if you don’t have the time to kill, it’s probably worth sticking to the original.
If you like the 1992 classic you might enjoy this update, but if you don’t have the time to kill, it’s probably worth sticking to the original.
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