Imparting poetry and philosophy onto the physicality of pick-up basketball, White Men Can’t Jump weaves an illusory beauty from perpetual motion, morphing passion and arrogance into a scrappy concrete ballet. The hypnotic game footage, lingering behind the rush of sound and emotion, boasts a delicacy that stands in contrast to the rivalries at play, lending a certain mystique to a tragedy of an almost Shakespearean gravity. By refusing the fleeting fantasy of competitive glory, Ron Shelton transforms his heroic athletes into thieves and hustlers, perverting their talents into an external representation of wounded masculinity.
Banking on pride and prejudice to cloud their opponents’ judgment, Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) and Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) construct elaborate ruses to align themselves on the court, using Billy’s pallid skin and Sidney’s persuasive patter to swindle their inadequate adversaries out of cash and credibility. The ironic twist is that both men bear the fatal flaws of their befuddled marks, permitting unbound narcissism and irresponsibility to propel them into an ever-growing abyss of self-destructive machismo.
Shelton employs their braggadocio as a vehicle for his waggish monologues, peppering each player’s vocabulary with an uproarious array of jibes and barbs. Snipes’ improvised adjective selection is the most scathing, each well-placed “momma” joke and shouted slight exuding a confidence matched only by the peacock’s plumage of his flipped-up painter’s cap. The lithe loquaciousness of his forked tongue couples well with the mobility of the camera, supplying a lived-in scrappiness to tight close-ups and a sense of exhilaration with each exaggerated pan and boastful remark.
Tender whispers are just as competitive and verbose as the trash talk in Shelton’s universe, conveying intimacy and hostility through spirited gender debate. Playing the perfect foil to Harrelson’s plain-spoken and volatile banter, Rosie Perez bestows complexity and sensuality onto Gloria, defiantly chomping gum and jawing back at Billy as he reveals his latent misogyny and incapacity for vulnerability. Sidney even picks up on this emotional unavailability, perfectly elucidating Billy’s faults by explaining the difference between “listening and hearing,” utilizing Jimi Hendrix’s music as a metaphor for romantic comprehension.
Sadly, Hoyle’s insecurities sour each athletic and amorous victory, pushing him to gamble on pride in the face of logic and love. Ron Shelton has built a career out of exposing the frailty of stubborn men and Billy Hoyle is at once his least hopeful and most sentimental subject, acting as our avatar for the narcotic joy of sport and the emptiness that lies out of bounds. Despite the comic nature of his downfall and the jocularity of the dialogue, Billy’s sorrow yields an unforeseen profundity, exposing the truth inherent in failure and the inadequacies of the alpha male.
White Men Can’t Jump (20th Century Fox, 1992)
Written and Directed by Ron Shelton
Photographed by Russell Boyd