[Screen It]

(1999) (Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon) (R)

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Drama: Wrongly sentenced to consecutive life terms for a crime he didn't commit, a one-time contender for the middleweight boxing title must deal with his time in prison as well as the efforts of an inspired teenager and his Canadian friends who are trying to gain his freedom.
A one-time contender for the middleweight boxing title of the 1960s, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (DENZEL WASHINGTON) is a man who turned his life around after spending more than half of his troubled childhood and early adult years being incarcerated in some fashion.

Although his future seemed bright, one night in 1966 changed all of that. Framed by Vincent Della Pesca (DAN HEDAYA) -- a bad cop who's had it out for him for years - for several murders he didn't commit, Carter and another innocent man, John Artis (GARLAND WHITT), are sentenced to several consecutive life terms. Despite various attempts to appeal his conviction, Rubin eventually realizes he may never get out, and even tells his wife, Mae Thelma (DEBBI MORGAN), to divorce him for the good of both.

Things change, however, years later when a young man, Lesra Martin (VICELLOUS REON SHANNON), picks up Carter's several year old novel, "The Sixteenth Round," and becomes fascinated by the man and his plight. Cared for and tutored by a trio of Canadians, Lisa (DEBORAH KARA UNGER), Sam (LIEV SCHREIBER), and Terry (JOHN HANNAH) who rescued him from a dead end home life and are preparing him for college, Lesra begins corresponding with the now reclusive Rubin.

Soon Lesra and his Canadian mentors become good friends with Rubin, but when another appeal is lost, the former boxer decides that all hope is lost. Yet, Lesra and the others persevere, and despite the long odds and Della Pesca's intimidating ways, they continue in their battle to bring about Carter's freedom.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Despite the money and fame that often accompanies it, there's no denying that boxing is a brutal sport. After all, it's really not that much more than an updated, non-lethal version of the old gladiator fights where crowds would gather to watch and cheer on the pummeling and eventual demise of one of two hearty contestants.

Although the allure and mystique of the sport have waned in the past decade or so due to various problems including a lack of personable and charismatic fighters of recent, back in the sixties and seventies it was a big deal. Of course in that former decade of civil rights unrest, the "white establishment" often feared black competitors not only for challenging their white champions, but also because they came off as powerful and dangerous black men.

Thus, it wasn't all that surprising that one of them, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a promising middleweight contender, was so easily convicted of murdering several people. After all, he was a black, and therefore presumably dangerous fighter, who was identified by white witnesses and tried by an all-white jury. The only problem was, he didn't commit the crime.

That's the compelling setup of "The Hurricane," a true-life story about the real man's fight to survive after being wrongly accused and imprisoned. Based on both Carter's own novel, "The Sixteenth Round," and "Lazarus and The Hurricane" by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, this is one of those gritty prison dramas where the audience roots for justice and the eventual freedom for the innocent.

Our rooting comes about for several worthy reasons. For one, despite being based on true-life events and even eliciting a related song by Bob Dylan as well as numerous attempts by celebrities of the time to help out, many in the general movie-going audience are not familiar with the man or his predicament. As such, while we can make an educated guess about the eventual outcome, its certainty is at least somewhat still up in the air as the final minutes draw to a close.

For another, screenwriters Armyan Bernstein ("One From the Heart," "Thank God It's Friday") and Dan Gordon ("Passenger 57," "Murder in the First") have taken what could have been a run-of-the-mill story about a wrongly accused and sentenced prisoner's attempts at clearing his name and given it something with greater resonance. Mining the best elements out of the typical courtroom and prison dramas, they've fashioned an intriguing and nicely assembled, non-linear story that immediately hooks the audience and never lets go.

It doesn't hurt that four-time Oscar nominated director Norman Jewison ("A Soldier's Story," "Moonstruck") is at the helm. Although nonlinear stories - where various different times and settings are intermingled with the "present day" one - occasionally have the effect of derailing a film's momentum as viewers have to continually adjust to the temporal shifts, Jewison not only manages to keep the film flowing, but also gives it a great deal of heart.

Of course, for the film to ultimately succeed, it needs a compelling and sympathetic character at its core, and it gets that, and a great deal more, from Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington ("Glory," "Cry Freedom"). Easily one of the best actors working in films today, Washington delivers a grand performance that should earn him yet another boatload of award nominations.

Like the script, his portrayal of the wrongly imprisoned character easily could have fallen into the standard stereotypes of the genre. Yet, and despite not playing an angelic creation, Washington manages to instill his character with a far greater amount of depth than one would initially imagine. The resultant effect is that he transcends the usual conventions, and by doing so draws the audience to and into his character, immediately creating a sympathetic figure who easily propels the film forward.

As his young protégé and hopeful emancipator, Vicellous Reon Shannon ("Can't Hardly Wait," "Mighty Ducks 2"), delivers a decent and believable performance. The moments where his and Washington's characters interact on a one-on-one basis are some of the film's best, and Shannon manages to stand with his more accomplished costar without being lost in his shadows.

Unfortunately, most of the film's remaining characters aren't that well defined. As the trio of Canadian supporters, John Hannah ("The Mummy," "Sliding Doors"), Liev Schreiber ("A Walk on the Moon," "Sphere") and Deborah Kara Unger ("Payback," "The Game") are all decent, but we hardly know a thing about them.

As such, they come off more as a collective whole, which isn't too surprising considering that they're a truncated assembly of the larger number of real-life people involved in the actual case. Meanwhile Dan Hedaya ("Dick," "Clueless") is not much more than a worthy, but still hazily sketched two-dimensional villain and veteran actor Rod Steiger ("End of Days," "In the Heat of the Night") continues his recent stint of playing offbeat judges (after doing the same in "Crazy in Alabama").

While the cinema has seen its share of boxing-related films, as well as those dealing with the wrongly accused trying to clear their good names, Washington, Jewison and the rest of the cast and crew of "The Hurricane" manage to breathe some new life into this cross-genre hybrid.

Featuring a well-devised and deployed, non-sequential plot and a tremendous, award-worthy performance by Washington, the film simultaneously manages to come across as a compelling and moving experience. Although it may be a bit too long and contain sketchy characters beyond the central ones, it never seems boring and turns out to be a film worth seeing. We give it a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 8, 1999 / Posted January 7, 2000

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