clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘White Men Can’t Jump’ Can’t Top the Original—but That’s a High Bar

Just don’t pretend that Jack Harlow and Sinqua Walls are going head-to-head with Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes (and maybe just play back the first movie)

20th Century Fox/Hulu/Ringer illustration

“The race shit is dated,” says rec-center hustler Jeremy (Jack Harlow) as he surveys a group of potential marks with his wingman, Kamal (Sinqua Walls). “Everybody but you knows white dudes can hoop now.”

It’s a line that plays up the potential redundancy of remaking Ron Shelton’s canonical 1992 sports comedy, White Men Can’t Jump, about a tetchy pair of pickup warriors trying to cash in on a lucrative streetball tournament. Released in the same year that the Dream Team stormed Barcelona and Charles Barkley battled Godzilla, Shelton’s beautifully written and acted film looks even better in retrospect. Like few American movies of its era, it rode the zeitgeist to box office success and much-deserved critical acclaim. After boldly satirizing the mythic, Midwestern traditionalism of baseball in Bull Durham—a far less pious take on America’s pastime than Field of Dreams, featuring a better Kevin Costner performance—Shelton put his finger on the pulse of a sport on the upswing. The script slyly allegorized the optics—and politics—of the Bird-Magic rivalry through the castings of Hollywood avatars Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, whose profane back-and-forth also drew on interracial buddy comedies like 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon.

White Men Can’t Jump was the best basketball movie ever made upon its release, but it didn’t exactly have much competition (Steve James’s Hoop Dreams was still two years away). In lieu of the wholesome, amber-tinted uplift of Hoosiers—a movie in love with the past and the idea of basketball as a ground-bound endeavor—White Men Can’t Jump established itself squarely in a contemporary moment when a sport considered to be esoteric in comparison to baseball or football had transformed into a vivid landscape dominated by various cults of personality. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird may have made passing cool, but they were also elevated above their teammates by marketing campaigns that turned them into superheroes. This was also the era when the dunk contest took over All-Star Weekend, which gave Michael Jordan his first great solo showcase before he started winning championships: greatness in a gravity-defying, slow-motion vacuum.

In his savvily conceived Nike corporate origin myth, Air, Ben Affleck showed the potency of the Jordan brand—fans didn’t just want to buy tickets to see MJ; they wanted to literally step into his shoes. A combination of aspirationalism and aesthetics provided the backdrop for Shelton’s film, whose characters aren’t just playing basketball, but are trying to look good doing it. The egomania of Snipes’s strutting playground legend, Sidney Deane, is tied as much to his look as it is to his jump shot: As Harrelson’s character says at one point, his partner’s Achilles’ heel is wanting to look good first and win second. The question of style versus substance is central to Shelton’s plot. The main reason Sidney underrates Harrelson’s Brady Bunch–looking Billy Hoyle is that the latter flaunts his gawky Caucasian-ness as a combination secret weapon and defense mechanism. Sidney doesn’t see the trickster hick coming and is humbled, to a point. Meanwhile, Harrelson’s hopelessly mismatched wardrobe anticipates millennial hipster chic. Thirty years later, the pale outlier has become an archetype: As Jeremy notes to Kamal in the remake, the gym they’re hoping to shake down is full of white guys, many of whom can jump. They need a new plan, and any filmmaker playing with Shelton’s potent, enduring themes of rivalry and solidarity needs a new angle.

Happily, music video ace Calmaticwho copped an MTV award in 2019 for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” before helming this year’s LeBron James–produced House Party remake—finds that new angle by casting Harlow, the mixtape-ratified rapper whose drawly bars and goofy humor have turned him into a Gen Z symbol of white hip-hop virtuosity. He’s a playful, progressive heir to Eminem with fewer demons and an intuitive grasp of social media syntax. Where Harrelson was merely a fine, underrated sitcom actor inhabiting a well-written seriocomic role, Harlow’s character draws on aspects of his celebrity persona: Jeremy is an image-savvy self-promoter peddling workout schemes, miracle cures, and self-help mantras to an alpha-male constituency. There’s a personal aspect to his savior act: We learn that he was once an elite prospect out of Gonzaga, but injuries kept him from the NBA. Despite promising his girlfriend (Laura Harrier) that he’ll stay healthy (and ground-bound), he scrolls his phone looking at G League tryouts. In his big-screen acting debut, Harlow strikes a nice balance between surface cockiness and suppressed pathos. He’s also got good motormouth dialogue to deliver: In one scene, Jeremy manages to compare himself simultaneously to Luka Doncic (“a modern hooper with low body fat and functional strength”) and the director of There Will Be Blood (“I’m like the P.T. Anderson of basketball psychological warfare”).

In a way, Harlow’s flamboyance subsumes both Harrelson’s and Snipes’s acting styles. He’s too famous for this to be a star-making performance, but it does suggest he’s got more acting in his future. Meanwhile, Walls—a young veteran of MTV dramas and Friday Night Lights—has a more stolid, humorless part, which he manages as well as he can. The backstory is that Kamal—a young father whose partner, Imani (Teyana Taylor), operates a small salon—is his own worst enemy, having torpedoed his former status as a Kobe-level high school phenom as a result of his anger management issues: namely, a volcanic temper catalyzed in the presence of his overbearing, LaVar Ball–ish father, Benji (the late Lance Reddick). Brooding can be a boring quality in a protagonist, but Walls is a smart enough actor to modulate Kamal’s frustration with tones of tenderness, and he’s a game foil for Harlow and his prepackaged positivity shtick. Walls glowers his way through breathing exercises and mantras with a skepticism that recalls—but crucially does not copy—Snipes’s disbelieving dynamic with Harrelson.

There are a lot of things that White Men 2.0 doesn’t bother copying: On a storytelling level, the new film is considerably less ambitious than its predecessor, which included a wonderfully left-field subplot about Billy’s girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), and her run as a Jeopardy! contestant. That digression was perfectly in line with Shelton’s eccentric sensibilities, and Perez, who’d just come off of Do the Right Thing, helped to sell the film’s cacophonous vision of American diversity. For all its progressive rhetoric, Calmatic’s film has far less imagination when it comes to its female characters: Harrier’s Tatiana is a drag, while Taylor has too much presence for the stand-by-your-man clichés she’s given. In Bull Durham, and also Tin Cup, Shelton was able to juxtapose scenes of boys-will-be-boys camaraderie with moments of genuine romance and sexual heat, but the newer film’s script, credited to Kenya Barris and Doug Hall, lacks its predecessor’s eclecticism—the sharp, serrated edge of its interpersonal relationships. Harrelson and Perez’s bickering is hilarious, but Perez also has a funny, wary dynamic with Snipes; even the semi-goofy gangster subplot, which finds Billy on the run because of gambling debts, helps to give the action some genre-movie urgency.

Nothing about Calmatic’s White Men remake is urgent, and there’s no sense of threat anywhere. Even when the characters get testy with each other—in a series of mechanically on-beat confrontations—it’s clear that they just need to get over themselves. (Predictably, Reddick’s meddling father figure is a secret sweetheart, a type right in the late character actor’s wheelhouse.) Ideally, Jeremy’s zen-and-the-art-of-jump-shot-maintenance philosophy would be as much of a satirical target as anything else in the film, but ultimately, the script is on his wavelength: It’s all about positivity. Which is fine but a little wearying, especially if you remember the vital, life-affirming nastiness of Shelton’s best lines. The basketball scenes are solidly staged and edited, but there’s nothing as exciting or kinetic as the best bits from the original, with its gravity- and logic-defying climactic money shot.

Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump ends with a wry parody of/homage to Rocky III, with Sidney and Billy still going at it—eternal sparring partners locked in mano a mano combat. This version wraps things up even more optimistically, leaning into crowd-pleasing in a way that feels shameless. But then, shame is beside the point when you’re talking about remakes, especially ones that feel like they have to justify their own existence. In a case like this, the best you can hope for is a movie that politely renovates intellectual property instead of desecrating it—one that clears a low bar without tripping over itself. White Men Can’t Jump doesn’t have much vertical, but it’s enough to get the job done.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.