Universal // 1999 // 146 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // July 5th, 2000
Imprisoned through hate...released by love.
The Hurricane is a dramatization of the real life story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, once a leading contender for the world middleweight boxing championship, but wrongfully committed for a triple murder and imprisoned for 20 years. It is also the story of a boy, who read Carter's book "The Sixteenth Round" and was so moved by it that he struck up the beginning of a lifelong relationship and who stuck with him until he was freed. A powerful dramatic performance by Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, Crimson Tide, The Bone Collector) that earned him an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe for Best Actor, is supplemented by a wonderful story and great cinematography, but unfortunately suffers from some flaws in the script. Universal again produces an outstanding Collector's Edition DVD for a day and date release.
It will always be impossible for me to understand what it is to be black in America, much less so in the days the civil rights movement was winning some of their first victories. Trying to understand the even larger step of being convicted for a brutal crime you did not commit and given a life sentence without parole is futile. That Denzel Washington could make me feel, even for a moment, that I knew the man that all this happened to proves the power of his performance. His Oscar nomination was well deserved. Playing from the age of 20 to his '50s was ultimately made believable by his intense metamorphosis into the role.
Not taking the easy way out, the film portrays Carter as he really was, warts and all. Often bitter, angry, and intentionally distant, it takes time to root for him. Ultimately he overcomes the judgmental attitudes and rage and transcends into a more spiritual, intellectual man, and the task becomes easier. Of course he had good reason for his anger, and each step along the path we see him take has a reason behind it; to make it through the years behind bars without losing his mind.
Some of the supporting cast were also quite good; notably Vicellous Reon Shannon as young Lesra Martin, who carries nearly half of the film on his own. Lesra was one of the kids who had fallen through the cracks, a black youth who was nearing high school graduation while being unable to read or write. Taken in by a group of Canadians who had befriended the boy, they teach him to read. The first book Lesra ever reads is "The Sixteenth Round," which as I said had a profound impact on him. The film is told both through the eyes of Hurricane Carter and through the relationship between him and Lesra.
Personifying all the racism of the police of the time, and the villain of the film, is Dan Hedaya (Alien Resurrection, Dick) as Detective Della Pesca, who saw Carter only as scum needing to be locked up, whether he was guilty of this crime or not. He frames Carter, and maintains the cover-up to the bitter end through forgery, witness tampering, and intimidation. Eventually of course the truth comes out through a daring move to the federal courts, bypassing all the people Della Pesca has in his pocket.
I mentioned the cinematography, which was gripping and graphically realistic in its approach. Roger Deakins, who also was responsible for the camera work on The Shawshank Redemption again proves his abilities for a film shot mainly in a prison. Kudos must also be given of course to director Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof, A Soldier's Story, In the Heat of the Night), who kept the camera running rather than resort to too many cuts, which added to the realistic feel of the picture. No MTV style editing here, I'm happy to say.
Universal seems to always come through on their day and date releases, with a standard set of extras that you can count on. They can also be counted on for outstanding anamorphic transfers, and they have delivered another such here. The often-gritty colors are accurately rendered and detail is sharply defined throughout. Blacks, fleshtones, and shadow detail are all impeccable. Only some bit of motion artifacting and a few instances of shimmer mar what would otherwise be reference quality video, but overall it was a smooth and textured look; an outstanding picture.
The soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but is mainly a front loaded soundfield, typical for a drama. Dialogue is always clearly understood, and the musical score sounds fine when it is used, and is perhaps the only part of the track where the surrounds are used. Nothing outstanding, but everything you can ask for with such a film.
Universal knows how to do extras right, particularly on their newer films which have DVD in mind even as the picture is being shot. As usual there is the feature "Spotlight on Location," which includes interviews with the director and cast, as well as the real Hurricane Carter and Lesra Martin. An amazing resemblance between Lesra and his acting counterpart, and another excellent look at the making of the film. Of course there is also a commentary track with director Norman Jewison, who mainly tried to explain why the film was done the way it was and behind the scenes stories rather than technical details of the shooting. Following the commentary is 20 minutes of deleted scenes, with explanation from the director for the reasons they were cut, mainly for running time. Ten screens worth of production notes, cast and crew information, the theatrical trailer, and DVD-ROM weblinks complete the extras.
The main problems I had with the film concerned the choices of some of the scenes and the unsure motivations for the supporting cast. At 146 minutes the film runs just a bit too long; yet there are things missing. This group of Canadians, played by John Hannah, Deborah Unger, and Liev Schreiber, for some reason first take in this kid from the Bronx who can't read and truck him up to Canada to teach him. Later for some reason they share in the enthusiasm about Carter's case with Lesra, but in neither case do we have any idea why they'd do this. Lesra's motivations are clear enough, but these three supporting roles are not. They suffer from the fact that these 3 were really an amalgamation of 9 or more people who lived in a sort of a commune in Canada, and therefore were not fully individualized. Perhaps this is a small complaint, but it kept nagging at me during the film. I also felt the final payoff scene was not handled particularly well; especially after seeing similar scenes done so much better in other films such as Snow Falling on Cedars. The lawyers little tidbits of arguments did not sound particularly effective for the payoff.
I understand there was a tremendous amount of room to cover in this film, but in some cases I thought parts were added that shouldn't have been, and time taken from better exposition on the supporting characters. Particularly this is true with the scenes trying to add an element of danger as the bad guys realize our heroes are on the trail for the truth which has been buried all these years. These events did not take place, they didn't particularly work to add in some adventure elements to the story, and they added time to an already long running film that could have been better used elsewhere. These factors hurt the film, but overall I have to give a positive impression as the good outweighs the bad by a long shot.
I really have no complaints about the disc, but I did feel the commentary track suffered a bit from Norman Jewison telling us the story that we probably had just finished seeing. The information he gave was sound, but some of it was a bit obvious. I did really like the commentary before the deleted scenes, however.
If you haven't seen The Hurricane, you should. Rent it or buy it, this is a powerful drama with only a few flaws keeping it from true excellence. Denzel Washington deserves every bit of the credit he has gotten for his performance, and it is well worth seeing. The ladies might just appreciate knowing that he worked out for a year to get the younger body of the boxer and there is a brief nude scene.
Universal and the cast of The Hurricane are acquitted of any charges, just as the real Hurricane should have been many years ago. The few flaws I found with the film do not constitute enough evidence to bring forth any charges, and I hereby dismiss the case.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Spotlight on Location Feature
* Deleted Scenes
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Info
* DVD-ROM content