Hurricane, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Hate put me in prison. Love's gonna bust me out." Those words, spoken by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (Denzel Washington), form the thematic foundation of Norman Jewsion's latest film, The Hurricane. Alternatively tragic and triumphant, it is an exhilarating trip through the life and times of the title character, a championship boxer from Paterson, New Jersey, who spent 19 years behind bars for murders he did not commit. The Hurricane not only details the crime and the miscarriage of justice that followed, but shows how Carter survived the long, lonely years in prison, and how the devotion of a small group of Canadians led to his redemption.

It's difficult to state exactly where and when the movie begins, since, especially during its first half, it jumps around freely and frequently in time. There are numerous flashbacks, but the editing is clean and sharp, which keeps the potential for confusion to a minimum. It's usually easy to determine within a couple of seconds exactly what portion of Carter's life into which the current scene offers a window.

There are two primary time periods. The first begins in 1963, when The Hurricane defeats Emile Griffith for the World Welter Weight title, and continues through 1966, when he is arrested and tried for murder, then into the 1970s, when he is incarcerated at Trenton State Prison on a life sentence. The second time period occurs during the 1980s, when Lesra Martin (Vicellous Shannon), a Brooklyn teenager living in Canada, buys a copy of Carter's autobiography, The 16th Round, and develops a passion to meet Carter. Encouraged by the three older people he is living with - Sam (Liev Schreiber), Terry (John Hannah), and Lisa (Deborah Unger) - he opens a correspondence with Carter, then travels to New Jersey to visit him. Following the face-to-face meeting, Lesra becomes determined to free Carter, and enlists the aid of Sam, Terry, and Lisa in his struggle.

Many people became aware of Carter's plight as a result of Bob Dylan's mid-70s ballad, "The Hurricane" (which is featured on two separate occasions during the course of the film). Over the years, a number of celebrities have leant their support to Carter's cause, but none of the marches or protests had any effect. What made the difference was the commitment of the group from Toronto, who gave up their jobs, moved to New Jersey, and literally risked their lives to find the evidence to prove Carter's innocence and to bring to light the corruption of the Paterson police lieutenant (Dan Hedaya) who hunted The Hurricane like a dog. Their efforts turn The Hurricane into a story of victory rather than defeat.

Denzel Washington is amazing in the lead role, giving his most powerful and effective performance since Malcolm X. Playing Carter demands a great deal of physicality and emotional range, and there isn't a moment when Washington isn't entirely convincing. The actors essaying the Toronto group - Vicellous Shannon, American Liev Schreiber (the cuckolded husband in A Walk on the Moon), Brit John Hannah (the "nice guy" in Sliding Doors), and Canadian Deborah Unger (Crash) - are all solid. Dan Hedaya interprets the part of the villain like a snake, and Rod Steiger has a small but crucial role.

For Jewison, who has spent the better part of a decade making marginal and/or forgettable motion pictures, The Hurricane represents a return to top form. This is a well written, wonderfully acted drama about the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. The fact that it's a true tale adds to its appeal. Jewison is at his best when making films with a social conscience, and this is one of his most moving endeavors in years. The film is a crowd-pleaser, but it earns the happy ending. By all accounts, it remains true to actual events not only in spirit but in its depiction of them. Jewison rigorously researched the movie before beginning work on it, and it's apparent from the opening scene (a black-and-white re-creation of the December 20, 1963 bout between Griffith and Carter) that a great deal of care and attention to detail went into The Hurricane's composition.

The movie premiered as a work print at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. Jewison, Washington, and most of the supporting cast were on hand to introduce the film. Also present was Rubin Carter, who gave an impassioned, 10-minute speech in which he expressed his gratitude to those who had worked to free him and to Jewison, for bringing the story to the screen. More than two hours later, when the film's final frame had faded to black, The Hurricane received a rousing, three-minute standing ovation. The applause was well-deserved and the enthusiasm in that auditorium will likely be replicated all across the world as audiences file out of theaters after seeing this beautifully crafted and uplifting movie biography.

Hurricane, The (United States, 1999)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1