Black Adam Review

In 1993, NBA superstar Charles Barkley famously told the world in a commercial that he was not a role model. Nearly three decades later, cinematic superstar Dwayne Johnson tells us repeatedly in Black Adam that he is not a hero. This latest offering from the DC Extended Universe kind of has a mid 90s vibe when it comes to comic book adaptations. That was a weak time for the genre prior to its explosion in the 21st century. As far as quality, this has more in common with 1996’s Kazaam, which starred Barkley’s Inside the NBA colleague Shaquille O’Neal. Adam may have a connection to 2019’s Shazam!, but shares little of its entertainment value.

A prologue in 2600 B.C. introduces us to the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Kahndaq. A young boy enslaved by an evil ruler chooses to take a stand against the oppression (even as his elders discourage it). He is rewarded by the Council of Wizards – hence that Shazam! tie-in as he’s given the immense powers of that character.

Flash forward 5000 years and Kahndaq is under a different kind of oppression from a crime syndicated known as Intergang. Archeologist Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) is in search of the Crown of Sabbac, which turns its wearer into a demonic being. Intergang is looking for it as well. When they clash, she manages to awaken Teth-Adam. He’s believed to be that heroic rebel from 50 centuries ago. Dwayne Johnson is the awoken being. Adam insists that’s he not a hero and keeps saying it.

The presence of this superhuman relic attracts the attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who you may remember as The Suicide Squad‘s recruiter. Adam is looked at as a potential threat. The Squad doesn’t intervene. Neither does Superman or Batman or The Flash (though they’re glimpsed on the bedroom wall of Adrianna’s teenage son). Instead the Justice Society books passage to Kahndaq to investigate just how dangerous Adam is. Pierce Brosnan is the clairvoyant Doctor Fate, Aldis Hodge is Hawkman, Noah Centineo plays Atom Smasher (think Ant-Man but he can only grow big), and Quintessa Swindell is the twirling Cyclone. If this sounds like the B list of the DC pages, that’s certainly how it feels. That superficiality extends to the villain (Marwan Kenzari), the Intergang leader who dons the devilish crown. He might be more forgettable than Justice League‘s baddie Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and that’s saying a lot.

Jaume Collet-Serra directed Johnson in the pretty enjoyable Jungle Cruise. That collaboration was a better ride than this. Johnson is saddled with a hero (wait… NOT a hero!!!) who’s often a sullen bore. Very little of the actor’s dynamic personality comes through. It break through on occasion but not nearly enough. We’re cooking at a low boil. Everything in Black Adam has been done with more pizzazz in other DCEU and especially MCU pictures. Dwayne Johnson (and Tina Turner) are right in this case. We don’t need another hero.

*1/2 (out of four)

Hustle Review

There are so many cameos in the Adam Sandler hoops drama Hustle that it would’ve seemed appropriate for the funksters of the group Cameo to appear and belt out “Word Up!” during a scrimmage. That would’ve been kind of awesome. Not much activity of the awesome variety occurs in this Netflix offering beyond some sweet athletic moves, but it’s hard to dislike this love and basketball tale.

Sandler’s Stanley Sugerman spends much of his life overseas as an international scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s a grind of an existence constantly searching for that diamond in the rough that could put the team into championship contention. He’d like to see his wife (Queen Latifah) and about to depart for college daughter (Jordan Hull) more often. That opportunity presents itself when Robert Duvall’s team owner offers him an assistant coaching position. The promotion is short-lived when a bald capped Ben Foster (as Duvall’s son) interferes with it.

Back across the pond, Stanley stumbles upon Spanish prospect Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) at a neighborhood pickup game. He clearly has incredible skills though his family circumstances (including having a young daughter) prevented his shot at professional glory.

In Philly, Stanley preps Bo for a potential draft selection through running up hills early in the morning and various other montages involving athletic drills. Considering the town this takes place in, you’d figure there needs to be a Rocky reference and there is.

Whether Bo’s viability in the big league is gonna fly now is complicated by a checkered past and how he responds to intense pressure. Anthony Edwards (star guard in real life for the Minnesota Timberwolves) plays the consensus #2 pick whose trash talk gets under Bo’s thin skin.

Naming all the actual NBA figures cycling in and out of Hustle would be quite an undertaking. Sandler is a die-hard fan and he had no trouble enlisting authentic figures to this fictional teacher-student story. I’ll point out an amusing one as Kenny Smith portrays a super agent who owes Stanley a favor due to their playing time together in college. His performance is perfectly adequate though any fan of the game might chuckle when we see the rest of the Inside the NBA crew (Ernie Johnson, Shaq, Sir Charles Barkley) minus their fourth member.

We have seen that Sandler can nail dramatic roles especially when high quality material accompanies it (Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems for example). Hustle is nowhere in the league of those pictures. I must admit seeing Adam Sandler as a coach on the sidelines never seems like anything other than Adam Sandler as a coach on the sidelines. Hernangomez (currently playing for the Utah Jazz) has a breezy rapport with his costar who clearly loves this source material. It’s so earnestly presented that it’s easy to admire even if it’s never a slam dunk.

**1/2 (out of four)

Space Jam Review

For reasons I cannot really explain, I never saw 1996’s Space Jam until yesterday. Followers of my blog know I’m a bit of a movie lover (hence the blog). Yet there’s plenty of films I haven’t watched. Gone with the Wind springs to mind. I still haven’t caught up with Demi Moore’s take on The Scarlet Letter and it came out a year before this one.

However, I was 17 when Michael Jordan’s collaboration with the Looney Tunes was released in theaters and it was a huge hit. I’m also a massive basketball fan and was an ardent admirer of #23 (who had just won his fourth NBA Championship in the months prior to Jam‘s release). Hell, I even had the soundtrack on CD. It featured Seal’s cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”. There was also “Hit ‘Em High” and it featured the divine hop hop quintet of B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes. The biggest hit causes some trepidation nowadays as the picture opens with the crooning of R. Kelly and “I Believe I Can Fly”.

It seems a bit silly to recount the plot all this time later, but here goes. Space Jam takes place in that strange time known as Michael Jordan’s first retirement. That’s when the superstar chose to play baseball and ended up in the Minor Leagues. That aforementioned first scene set to Kelly’s syrupy ballad is actually a touching one that features MJ as a young tyke on the court with his father. Followers of Jordan know why the sequence likely had some emotional resonance with him.

The comedy begins in another animated realm where Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) lords over his minions in a place titled Moron Mountain. That locale is part of an amusement park in need of more sizzling attractions. Swackhammer decides he wants to recruit the Looney Tunes characters (against their will) to join the party. When Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil and others are given the proposition – they challenge the newly formed Monstars to a basketball game. If they win, they’re free to go and resume their normal cartoon hijinks.

Swackhammer won’t go down without some creative team building so he steals the bodies of NBA stalwarts like Charles Barkley, Muggy Bogues, and Patrick Ewing to join his squad. Bugs and company have an ace up their sleeve, however, with the greatest of all time.

The blend of animation and live-action still holds up quite well from the mid 90s. At the time, it was quite cutting edge. This Jam runs just 88 minutes and mostly flies by. Jordan isn’t asked to do Shakespeare here. He plays a version of himself and does it well. The screenplay even has some fun with his many corporate connections by name dropping his many commercial brands (from Hanes to McDonald’s) at one point. Wayne Knight (fresh off being decimated by Dinos in Jurassic Park) plays MJ’s pushy but good-hearted publicist. Jordan’s family (Theresa Randle is his wife) appear intermittently but aren’t really a focus. MJ has a game to win after all and he takes it personally.

Having the Looney Tunes posse allows for plenty of humorous moments. No, this isn’t them at the height of their glory, but they still deliver. Interestingly enough, I found myself wanting the script to delve more into certain subplots. Having been a viewer of Inside the NBA for many years, I have no doubt that Charles Barkley could have been utilized to better effect (the dude’s hilarious).

My overall reaction to Space Jam is that I totally get why it’s become so appreciated. Is it a classic? No. Does it take its limited premise and make it amusing? Yes. In 2021, Lebron James has become the face of his league and that’s warranted the just out sequel. I won’t wait 25 years to watch it and my review of A New Legacy is coming to the blog soon.

Not everything has changed in the last quarter century by the way. Bill Murray shows up out of nowhere at a couple of key times. You’re a Google search away from reading stories about the legendary actor doing that all over the world. Google may not have been a thing 25 years ago, but Mr. Murray popping up unexpectedly to make things better is timeless.

*** (out of four)