Wednesday December 29, 1999
Denzel Washington's career has not lacked for exceptional roles; he's been nominated for Oscars and even won one. But nothing really prepares us for what he does in "The Hurricane." With power, intensity, remarkable range and an ability to disturb that is both unnerving and electric, it is more than Washington's most impressive part, it sums up his career as well, encapsulating the reasons why he's one of the very best actors working in film today.
That this role would be good for Washington was no surprise to the man himself. He tried to buy the rights to former middleweight contender Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's stranger-than-fiction life story nearly a decade ago, and he told eventual co-writer and co-producer Armyan Bernstein, "Just know that I want this, and I'm always going to want this." Once Washington got the part, he trained as a fighter for more than a year and lost enough pounds to physically transform himself into the lean and deadly boxer with a cobra's instinct for the kill.
Given this, it's regrettable, if perhaps inevitable, that the rest of this film is not up to the mark set by Washington's work. Co-written by Bernstein and Dan Gordon and directed by the veteran Norman Jewison, "The Hurricane" is fairly standard middle-of-the-road fare, simplistic, conventional, and, when the camera is not focused on Washington, lacking in things to hold our attention. Still, with a story so full of twists it's hard to believe it wasn't invented (and, as with "The Insider," some of it was), a certain amount of interest is built in.
If you're more a refugee from the counterculture than a boxing fan, Hurricane Carter will be familiar from the Bob Dylan song about him featuring classic protest lyrics like "This is the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame." For Carter was falsely convicted of a bloody triple murder in Patterson, N.J., in 1967 and served nearly two decades in prison before a jaw-dropping series of events ended up winning him his freedom.
"The Hurricane," to its credit, is an ambitious film, as witness the complicated back-and-forth structure its screenwriters have come up with to hopscotch through several decades of the boxer's life.
In what looks like a stylistic nod to "Raging Bull," Carter is introduced via a black-and-white re-creation of his 1963 fight against Emile Griffith. With his trademark goatee and hostile stare, Carter was intimidation itself in the ring, someone who, as he later says, would "take all the hatred and skill I could muster and send a man to his destruction."
Next we see Carter behind bars, willing to put his life on the line to protect the manuscript of the autobiography he's written in prison. With that book, "The Sixteenth Round," published in 1973, Carter discovered writing as a weapon--"more powerful than a fist could ever be."
Years later, a copy of that book falls into the hands of Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a Brooklyn-born teenager living in Toronto with three socially conscious Canadians (John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber) who have taken an interest in his welfare. (And if that sounds inexplicable that's just the way the movie presents it.)
Pompously prompted by one of the Canadians ("Sometimes we don't pick the books we read, they pick us"), Lesra begins to read "The Sixteenth Round," enabling us to see, via flashback and voice-over, the circumstances of Carter's life and why he ended up in prison.
Many of Carter's on-screen difficulties seem to stem from a "Les Miserables"-type vendetta against him by the fictional Det. Vincent Della Pesca that began when Carter was a boy of 11. (According to an article by Selwyn Raab, the New York Times reporter who covered the original case, several aspects of Carter's personal and legal history have been changed and simplified.) Della Pesca is played by Dan Hedaya, best known for his portraits of Richard Nixon, and his character is so blackhearted and devious he makes the former president at his worst look like Kris Kringle by comparison.
Never an easygoing individual, once Carter is imprisoned for murders he didn't commit as a result of Della Pesca's machinations, he focuses on not allowing himself to want or need anything. "Freedom came," he says, "in not having anything they could deprive me of."
So it's next door to miraculous (yet true) that this hardened convict both read and responded to a letter Martin sent him after finishing the book, and that the Canadians the young man lived with became seriously involved in the movement to free Carter, even if the film makes them more significant players than they were.
It's in dealing with these Canadians that "The Hurricane" is at its weakest. It's almost painful when the camera moves from the magnetic Carter to a trio of blander-than-bland individuals who hardly seem real. In fact, the problem is they're not.
According to "Hurricane," an excellent new authorized biography by James S. Hirsch about to be published by Houghton Mifflin, between eight and 10 Canadians were involved with Carter, not three, and both the group's dynamic and relationship to Carter (particularly that of Lisa Peters, played by Unger, who later married him) was much more psychologically complex than the film felt comfortable getting into. Still the awkward and stagy treatment of the Canadians does no one any favors, and edges the film's story into standard inspirational territory much more than it deserves.
Fortunately, "The Hurricane" has the honesty and skill of Washington's performance to combat its tendency toward tedium. The actor's work is especially impressive not only because Carter was a terrifying exemplar of barely controlled fury for much of his life--when he looked at you, you knew you'd been looked at--but also because the experiences of his life ended up changing him in not always foreseeable ways.
It's Washington's gift to be able to connect us with Carter even when he's at his angriest and most hostile and to make all the stages of his gradual evolution distinct and believable. He even takes what could be a cliched scene, Carter's personality splitting into three parts during a particularly harsh stretch of solitary confinement, and makes it an unforgettable moment. This is the last great performance of 1999, and arguably the best of the lot as well.
The Hurricane, 1999. R for language and some violence. Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures presents an Azoff Films/Rudy Langlais production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Norman Jewison. Producers Armyan Bernstein, John Ketcham, Norman Jewison. Executive producers Irving Azoff, Tom Rosenberg, Rudy Langlais, Thomas A. Bliss, Marc Abraham, William Teitler. Screenplay Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, based on "The Sixteenth Round" by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and "Lazarus and the Hurricane" by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton. Cinematography Roger Deakins. Editor Stephen Rivkin. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Christopher Young. Production design Philip Rosenberg. Art director Dennis Davenport. Set decorator Gordon Sim. Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes. Denzel Washington as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Vicellous Reon Shannon as Lesra Martin. Deborah Kara Unger as Lisa Peters. Liev Schreiber as Sam Chaiton. John Hannah as Terry Swinton. Dan Hedaya as Det. Vincent Della Pesca. Debbi Morgan as Mae Thelma.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times