Washington scores a knockout punch

Review: In `The Hurricane,' the actor's power carries the movie.

January 07, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The terms "movie star" and "actor" are often put at odds with one another. Stars, the thinking goes, possess that magic "it" that makes the camera love them regardless of their ability to bring depth and emotion to a character (think Kevin Costner). Many of the best actors lack the physical beauty or charisma to become a bona fide star (think Kevin Spacey).

But every once in a while the gods smile and star quality and talent intersect in someone of supreme physical gifts whose performances are consistently nuanced, focused and powerful. Think Denzel Washington. And think of "The Hurricane" as the first chance in a long time for him to prove just how great an actor -- and star -- he really is.

Washington plays Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the middleweight fighter who had just missed winning a world championship in 1966 when he was arrested, along with an acquaintance, for the murder of three people in a New Jersey bar. Railroaded by a racist police detective (played in the film by a menacing Dan Hedaya), judged guilty by a jury of his peers (all of whom were white men), Hurricane was sentenced to serve three life terms.

Carter became a pop icon when Bob Dylan sang about him in "Hurricane" and other stars came to his defense, but sooner or later the celebrity supporters lost the time or interest to pursue his case. It wasn't until a black youngster from Brooklyn, who was living with three white teachers in Canada, struck up a correspondence with Carter that his fate began to turn. In 1988, Rubin was finally found innocent and released from prison, thanks in large part to new evidence uncovered by young Lesra Martin and his three guardians.

It's that story that Norman Jewison has chosen to tell in "The Hurricane," which is based in part on a book written by two of the Canadians, Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton (played by Liev Schreiber and John Hannah in the movie). But even while the story of three earnest white liberals helping the wrongfully accused black fighter produces the expected frissons of righteous relief, Jewison's focus on the Canadians' dogged do-gooderism might have actually prevented a good movie from being a great one.

What makes "The Hurricane" a good movie is Washington, who so thoroughly inhabits Carter's character that he seems to turn into an entirely different person each time Carter goes through one of his many transformations. During the fight sequences of the early 1960s -- which Jewison films with a lovely blue patina, making them look as if they were lifted directly from the sports pages' rotogravures -- he is taut and rippled, exuding the uncontrolled rage that drove him.

As a man for whom the championship belt is but a left-hook away, he swaggers with casual assurance. In prison, he changes from a brooding, angry firebrand to a scholarly Buddha figure, for whom freedom is "not allowing myself to want or need anything."

In the most extraordinary sequence of "The Hurricane," Carter is put into solitary confinement, where he mediates between two selves -- a man riven with self-doubt who cowers in the corner and the man whose first instinct is to lash out with almost bestial ferocity.

Not many movie stars -- or actors for that matter -- could take on such a tricky scene, but Washington pulls it off with remarkable skill and even subtlety. Later, when Carter is writing his book, even a shot of his typing fingers has amazing expressive force.

It's impossible not to be moved by the Canadians' story of racial redemption, and Vicellous Reon Shannon is outstanding as their young black ward who instinctively gravitates toward Carter's ethos of self-sufficiency and sense of personal power. And it's impossible, when Jewison lingers on an inscription on a courthouse about justice being the firmest pillar of democracy, not to consider just how flimsy that pillar can be.

But it's Washington's galvanizing performance -- in a story that is so emblematic of American social history -- that makes "The Hurricane" a movie not to be missed.

`The Hurricane'

Starring Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Liev Schreiber, John Hanna, Deborah Kara Unger

Directed by Norman Jewison

Rated R (language and some violence)

Running time 146 minutes

Released by Universal Pictures

Sun score: ***

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