Courtesy Netflix

Had anyone asked me back in Adam Sandler’s SNL days whether he could score as a viable dramatic lead, I would have snort-laughed my Sunny D back up right through my nose. After seeing Hustle, I do believe I may have misjudged Sandler’s ability to project anything requiring more emotional heft than, say, The Waterboy.

The first time Sandler appears in director Jeremiah Zagar’s basketball-centric redemption drama, he looks plum wore out. As we watch him hauling suitcases through a montage of airports and countries, he’s exhausted, disheveled, and moves with the unmistakable bearing and countenance of a middle-aged dude starting to seriously question what he’s doing with his life. So goes the life of Sandler’s Stanley Sugarman, a onetime NCAA basketball player who was taken out by a grisly injury and has been drudging for decades as a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. 

As we follow the deeply empathetic and underdog-heroic Sugarman, Hustle spins a familiar plot (see also Rocky, Seabiscuit, Hoosiers, Moneyball, Bruised, ad infinitum) into a story that’ll keep you invested even if you don’t know a hoop dream from an embroidery hoop.

Moreover, Hustle becomes a pulse-racing thriller every time the action moves to a basketball court or the streets of Philadelphia, which becomes the training ground for Sugarman’s troubled protege, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez, who plays for the Utah Jazz). It’s not hyperbole to say Hustle could do for Philadelphia’s Manayunk Hill what Rocky did for those 72 stone steps leading to the Philadelphia Art Museum. 

The tension of the scrimmages comes in part from the host of professional players featured throughout and in part from Dan Deacon’s percussive, propulsive, masterful soundtrack, which somehow manages to insistently ratchet up the stakes with every beat without once pulling focus from the gameplay. 

Add in Queen Latifah making the most of an underwritten supportive wife role and Robert Duvall as the 76ers owner and you’ve got, yes, a winning movie. R, 117 min.

Limited release in theaters and streaming on Netflix