Universal // 1999 // 146 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // September 13th, 2007
"Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world."
We're at an era now where accomplished actors take on highly dramatic roles, or assume the title role in a compelling character's biodrama, not only to tell the story, but also to receive the Oscar glory that had been eluding them for years. As Ruben Carter, Denzel Washington had experienced Oscar recognition before, but only as a supporting Actor in Glory. So now that we're seven years removed from Kevin Spacey being the Best Actor for American Beauty, does Washington deserve another look? And is The Hurricane worthy of the high definition treatment?
Armyan Bernstein (One From the Heart) and Dan Gordon (Murder in the First) adapted Carter's book "The 16th Round," not to mention Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton's "Lazarus and the Hurricane," and Norman Jewison (Moonstruck) directed the story of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter. For those unfamiliar with the story, Carter was a middleweight boxer in New Jersey in the early 1960s, and was one of the top contenders for the title. However, things changed on a June night in 1966, when two African American males entered a bar in New Jersey and shot up the bar and its patrons, killing three and wounding one other. Witness descriptions matched with the physical description of Carter and John Artis, and both men were arrested, tried and convicted of the murders, and sentenced to life in prison. After a very public outcry and campaign for a retrial, one was granted in 1976, and again, Carter and Artis were found guilty. It took an appeal of the verdict at the Federal Court level in 1985 to help expedite the process and quest for freedom, which eventually was given to Carter in 1988 (Artis had been paroled three years earlier). The film chronicles Carter's tale and the ordeal of the jail time.
This is going to sound a bit political of me, but one of the things to remember, as socially advanced as we consider ourselves as Americans to be, is that when it comes to racism, there's still quite the battle to be won. Kanye West saying that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" is surely loopy, but when it comes to American history, it's not that far back in our rear view mirror and has got a long way to go. If we are presume that race was a part in the imprisonment of Ruben Carter, then it proves that even those who would consider themselves forward thinking perhaps aren't so much.
The reason why Spacey won over Washington continues to baffle me. I don't mean to denigrate Spacey or American Beauty; it is an excellent film. But Washington plays a man in the prime of physical condition and slowly ages over the course of three decades, but never loses the spirit of wanting to be free from his condition. He has many rocks to push up large mountains, so the quest is there, and he seems to emulate Carter so perfectly. The body may be beaten down, but the personality was far from it. Sure, he won a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day, but that award was clearly a couple of years late in getting to him.
Sadly enough, it's the interpretation of the story by Jewison that has seemed to not make it as credible in subsequent years. In fact, the entire character of Della Pasca (Dan Hedaya, Wise Guys), a police detective obsessed with Carter from his youth, was a dramatic creativity and not historically accurate. When Carter and his accomplice were stopped, it was not because they were black, as appears to be indicated, rather it was from eyewitness descriptions of the getaway car, which were also incorrectly depicted. Smaller things such as Carter's military background are also vaguely but inaccurately conveyed. Either way you look at the murders, the film would probably have benefited from looking strictly at Carter's ordeal rather than be a true crime recreation on Jewison's part. There is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that stipulates the dramatic elaborations, but that statement doesn't seem to justify it.
If you're thinking that the standard def's extra material is the same as this high definition disc, that's because it is. Jewison provides a commentary for the film that seems to rely heavily on what was in the screenplay, and he does kick the occasional line of moviemaking wisdom to the viewer, but overall, he mainly follows a "here's what happened on this shot" thinking, and after two hours of that, it's not really all that engaging, I'm sorry to say. A making of look at the film is next, and it's full of the usual thoughts from the cast and crew, but there's also clever insight into the real events from Carter and the real Martin. Several deleted scenes with Jewison's introduction follow, along with his explanation for cutting them. Quite frankly, they seem to purport a larger conspiracy to keep Carter behind bars than even Jewison would admit. Technically, this VC-1 encoded transfer does flush out some detail from time to time, but in terms of a serviceable video codec, Universal needs to move onto something better, if for nothing else that putting a VC-1 encoded transfer against an MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 Blu-ray disc makes it inferior almost every time (thus ending my minor gripe on the format wars for today). The Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack does envelop, though this is also fairly inconsistent over the course of this two and a half hour film.
With everything that I've discussed in the proceeding, to infer that Carter might be guilty of the crimes, my personal opinion is that it's nice to see him out, right or wrong. But the jewel of the film remains Washington's work, which is stellar. He transforms Carter into a man of intense passion when his privacy is invaded, one who lets very few into a level of resignation that he finds as a wrongly imprisoned man, and when hope is dangled out in front of him, he fights for it as feverishly as he possibly can. He takes the role of a falsely imprisoned man and turns it from the usual "shady guy in prison who really didn't do what he did to get there" into one where the man truly does transcend the imprisonment that he deals with. That it didn't win a Best Actor award still truly baffles me.
The Hurricane still remains a disappointment when it comes to bonus material, never mind the liberties taken with the facts. This is arguably the best performance of Denzel Washington's career, and anyone who likes him should check it out. On HD, it's nothing too special or a standout, so watch it for the film's merits and go from there.
Community service for Jewison, based on the character testimony of Washington. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Norman Jewison
* Deleted Scenes with Introduction
* Making-of Featurette
* Official Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* Opposing View of the Trial and Events in the Film