[box cover]

The Hurricane: Collector's Edition

Universal Home Video

Starring Denzel Washington, John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger,
Liev Schreiber, David Paymer, Dan Hedaya,
and Rod Steiger

Directed by Norman Jewison

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Norman Jewison makes Oscar movies, and that's what The Hurricane is — a textbook example of a movie geared to accrue awards. And Jewison did the job he was assigned. The Hurricane garnered an Academy Award nomination for the actor of the title character, Denzel Washington. Though he didn't get the Oscar, Washington won the top award at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as a Golden Globe and an NAACP Image Award. Jewison and the screenwriters took some awards around from various prize-giving bodies as well.

The formula for the Oscar Movie is rather simple. Adapt a real-life story or a stage play. Bland it out. Hit traditional hollow Hollywood beats. Preferably the story, be it derived from reality or fiction, will consist of a man's successful struggle against oppression. Or it can also be a wry celebration of life's quirky humor.

The Hurricane isn't the worst film to fall into this formula, but it it doesn't have a whole lot else to recommend it. As a boxing film, it falls far short of the tension and visual wizardry of Raging Bull, to mention just one film of many. As a story about racial tensions, it doesn't have the in-your-face unpredictableness of a Spike Lee film, for what that's worth. Jewison's movie has a noble mission, and he highlights some legitimately good performances, but at times the film chokes on its humble honesty. And what's worse, the most interesting part of the film — the story within the story of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's unjust incarceration — should really have been the main story. After all, Carter's career and life are well known, but the story of the people who got him out isn't.

Carter was a New Jersey-bred boxer who was on the champtionship track (and robbed of one decision for the title, the movie maintains) who was arrested and convicted for murder in the early 1960s, primarily due to the obsession of a cop (Dan Hedaya) who had it in for Carter since he was a boy. From prison, Carter wrote an autobiography in the '70s that drew attention to his case. That's when Bob Dylan wrote his famous song and Ellen Burstyn would speak at rallies on Carter's behalf. Unfortunately, these activities had little impact on Carter's freedom, and a second trial seems to have failed (the screenplay isn't really clear about chronology — it's one of those scripts that assumes you know and yet also acts as if you don't know the story at the same time).

But after this point the narrative gets interesting. A black kid named Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon) living on a commune in Canada (it's all explained in the movie) stumbles upon Carter's bio. Invigorated by Carter's proud anger, he ends up writing the boxer, and that letter leads to a correspondence, a visit, and then, at Lesra's urging, the whole of the commune reading the book with mounting indignation. After some initial hesitation, the commune (Deborah Kara Unger, John Hannah, and Liev Schreiber, reduced down from the historical nine commune members) becomes the only lifeline Carter has, the only people still interested in him. Their diligence in the face of police harassment and other frustrations, and their original detective work, finally succeeds where more-public supporters failed.

Jewison and his credited screenwriters — producer Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, from Carter's book and the published account by commune members Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, and uncredited contributions from Chris Cleveland (according to Jewison on the disc's commentary track) — intermix the Carter story with the commune story all along, and thus (to my mind anyway) spoiling the terrific surprise of the lesser-known half of the Carter tale.

Released in North America in January of 2000, the $38 million Hurricane made about $50 million domestically, but it was prestigious enough to earn several award nods. Universal's DVD release respects the importance of the subject as a Collector's Edition. The transfer is excellent, and Roger Deakins's superb cinematography is honored with a sharp and, when appropriate, dark image. This is a chatty film, and so an elaborate audio isn't excessively needed, but it's good that the dialogue is clear. Norman Jewison provides a commentary track, which is fine to hear once, but he doesn't say anything so memorable that a press release couldn't have said more economically. He also introduces five deleted scenes, and here he is much more passionate as he discusses the efficacy of shortening a film (he says he has final cut on all his movies). The first is a discussion between Carter and a fellow prisoner whom he respects about his dread of body searches (which actually would have explained an opening sequence); a scene depicting an internal debate at the commune about how much they can commit to the Carter case; a scene in a car junkyard when the commune is looking for the make of car driven by the killers that night; a scene wherein the cops threaten the commune members; and finally, a powerful scene between Schreiber and a witness who can free Carter. There's also a 20-minute "making-of" doc where the viewer gets to see and hear Carter himself.

— D. K. Holm

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© 2000, The DVD Journal