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USA 1999
Directed by
Norman Jewison
125 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Hurricane

Norman Jewison's long and somewhat over-cooked biopic of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (Denzel Washington) is very much in the crowd-pleasing style of films like The Shawshank Redemption. That it is based on a true and tragic story is an important point of difference one that reprieves the film somewhat from its directorial heavy-handedness

Of course everyone knows of Carter from the famous Dylan song about the man who was jailed “for a crime he never done”.  After a start which jumps back and forth from various key moments in Carter’s life, the film stabilizes around the early 1960s covering the time when Carter won the World Welter Weight title through to 1966 when he was arrested and tried for murder and subsequently incarcerated for life. It then jumps forward to the 1980s and tells the story of how an illiterate Brooklyn teenager, Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), living in Toronto in the care of a group of white Canadians (Liev Schreiber, John Hannah and Deborah Kara Unger) buys a copy of Carter's autobiography and is so inspired by his story of resilience and faith that he in turn inspires his carers who end up moving to New Jersey to help Carter find justice. Which he eventually does, being released after 19 years behind bars

How much of the story is fact and how much is Hollywood invention is hard to say (apparently there's more of the former than the latter) but the treatment, with Carter beset by the bitterly racist Paterson police lieutenant, Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), Inspector Javert to Carter's Jean Valjean, making it his personal mission to take Carter (even as an 11 year old) down, feels like a familiar narrative. This is particularly so in the latter stages when Lesra and his carers move to New Jersey to prove Carter's innocence.  We get lots of high emotion with failed appeals, last minute evidence, threats from unknown sources, a "case wall" covered with high-lighted clippings, photos and stick-notes with helpful thing like "LIAR" written on them and so forth. How the Canadians funded themselves is never explained while Carter's wife simply evaporates despite end-titles telling us that she and Carter remained good friends. Nor are we told what happened to Della Pesca although he apprently subverted justice, or why, given that this was so, the State of New Jersey tried to have the Federal Court ruling freeing Carter over-turned.

The film is at its best when Washington is on screen. Recalling his performance in Malcolm X the intensely physical actor is compelling in what is essentially a carefully-managed apotheosizing of Carter (although given what he went through one can hardly begrudge the man that). And although boxing is only a small component of the film Roger Deakins’ photographing of the fight scenes is impressive as indeed is his work here as a whole.

As a mainstream entertainment Jewison's film works well. Ironically, for a story of harsh urban reality, that is also its biggest drawback.




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