Owens' Other Writings
There's something magical about the words, "Based on a true story." It's the kind of magic that allows us to overlook the pettier elements of what we generally consider good filmmaking: rounded characters, natural development and palatable dialogue. At least, that must have been the thinking of the people behind The Hurricane, a blustery film about the wrongful imprisonment of boxer Reuben "Hurricane" Carter.
There is some promise in the beginning of the film. Early scenes jump back and forth, managing to touch on almost all of the major events in Carter's life in the space of five minutes. After introducing the young man who will eventually be the key in Carter's redemption, however, the film settles into a more traditional rhythm, and subsequently kills off any chance it had of escaping the walls of its own limited vision. It's a movie of the week with a bigger budget and stronger profanity.
The main problem (though certainly not the only one) is the writing. Screenwriters Armyan Bernstein (Cross My Heart, Thank God It's Friday) and Dan Gordon (Murder in the First, Passenger 57) have taken Carter's story and cut away most of the meat. What's left is a tale that hits all the right notes, pushes all the right buttons, but lacks genuine depth and sincerity. The central characters have all been flattened to the point of caricature. The worst of these has to be Detective Della Pesca, the policeman who's seemingly obsessed with destroying Carter, and the embodiment of the film's more abstract villain, the "Corrupt System." Dan Hedaya (Dick, Clueless) does his best Snidely Whiplash impression, and I could almost hear him saying, "Curses! Foiled again!" as the judge freed Carter at the end of the film (I'm not giving anything away here...). Unfortunately, the other characters suffer similar fates, being drained of nuance to the point where the only similarity between the characters and their real-life counterparts are the names (though I suspect some of those may have been changed as well).
Given the script's inherent limitations, director Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, In the Heat of the Night) seems hell-bent on doing more damage, pacing the film so as to hit all the marks at exactly the right time. The stopwatch test is telling in this case (less useful film classes have a map of narrative development that is broken down almost to the minute -15:00...first conflict, 25:00...complication, 40:00...first false resolution, and so on). Certain scenes are elongated, usually in an attempt to mine them for every possible emotional nugget, while others are jarringly constricted, cut short not because of any lack of interest, but because they've accomplished their task...and the next scene is waiting. When Carter meets his future wife, Mae Thelma (Debbi Morgan), the film doesn't develop their relationship at all. They met, they married, and that's all we need to know. Jewison also works to hamstring the film stylistically, resorting to some of the most abused cinematic cliches around (Carter's crushing blows in the ring are delivered in black and white slow motion with the sounds of roaring animals in the background).
There is an eye to this storm, though, and that is the powerful performance of Denzel Washington as Carter. In much the same way that Carter had to transcend the limitations imposed upon him, Washington does his best to transcend the material. His eyes convey more deep and varied emotions than most actors could pronounce, and when he speaks, even the most ludicrous dialogue manages to resonate (and there is certainly no paucity of ludicrous dialogue...in fact, one of the biggest credits to Washington is that he can deliver many of his lines with a straight face). Washington definitely deserves to be recognized here, but even his strengths are no match for the film's weaknesses.
The Hurricane certainly evokes feelings in the audience, but they're not feelings the film truly earns. Instead, they are the prepackaged reactions to hot-button issues to which every human responds: moral outrage at social injustice, sadness at the trials of the wrongly accused, and joyous celebration when someone triumphs against all odds. But like each of those examples, they're little more than cliches. After all is said and done, the film is like its meteorological namesake: loud and grand, but ultimately empty.