At the center of "The Hurricane's" impassioned true story is the towering performance by Denzel Washington. Cast as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the middleweight boxing champion who was imprisoned for 19 years for murders he didn't commit, the actor electrifies and raises the game of the entire project.
Norman Jewison, the director of light '90s fare such as "January Man" and "Only You," returns to the explosive, socially conscious filmmaking that brought him acclaim, such as with the classic "In the Heat of the Night" and last decade's "A Soldier's Story." The latter was a successful collaboration with Washington, who at the time had just broken into the movie business. The second time around, they're both older, wiser and very much capable of stirring the mind and heart.
"Hurricane" is an epic biopic that fits a lot of details about the boxer's life into its two-hour-plus running time. From his fateful, early troubles with a racist cop named Della Pesca (a smug Dan Hedaya) to his later rise to the top of the boxing world in 1963, Rubin is shown to be a fierce survivor. Even at the opening of the film, which presents the man as an inmate at Trenton State Prison in 1973, Rubin screams out from the back of his cell like a wounded animal ready to pounce.
Intermittent flashbacks re-create the events that landed him there. In part because of his life-long battle with Pesca and other corrupt authorities, Rubin and an acquaintance found themselves unjustly accused of three murders at a New Jersey bar in 1966. Seven years later, Rubin fights to keep his only copy of the story he wrote about his wrongful conviction, titled "The Sixteenth Round."
Despite the efforts of fans, celebrities and a folk song by Bob Dylan, the boxer's attempts to regain his freedom were consistently rebuked. In one of the movie's more painful scenes, the boxer finally gives up, asking his wife to divorce and never see him again.
Salvation for the boxer comes from an unlikely corner: a young American teen named Lesra (or Lazarus) Martin. The script by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon is based on two texts: "The Sixteenth Round," by Rubin himself; and "Lazarus and The Hurricane," by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton.
Lesra, played convincingly in the film by Vicellus Shawn, was a New York kid who came under the tutelage of three progressive Canadians. He didn't know how to read, but one of the first books he picked up was "The Sixteenth Round." It moved him so much that he began to write to the boxer. To his surprise, Rubin wrote back.
Eventually, Lesra, Sam (Liev Schreiber), Terry (John Hannah) and Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger) gave up their lives in Toronto, moved to New Jersey and began their own campaign for Rubin's freedom. In 1985, Rubin's conviction was overturned, and the Hurricane was finally set free.
The story and Rubin's ultimate fate is naturally moving and powerful, but Jewison also presents the details and events surrounding them in a way that compels and rewards.
Unlike experimental genre films such as this year's "American Beauty" and "Three Kings," this movie follows a more traditional narrative arc. The director keeps things interesting by presenting many scenes out of sync and in flashback. The last act of the film re-creates the events of Rubin's case as a murder mystery, while other passages deal with his relationship to Lesra and the conditions of discrimination which existed then and now.
Central to the film's success is Washington's performance. It's a commanding tour-de-force that ranks with the actor's best work, including his parts in "Malcolm X," "Glory" and "Cry Freedom." Washington lost 40 pounds to become the boxer, but it's not just his physical presence that commands attention. There is a fierce integrity and passion in Washington's eyes that's absolutely remarkable.
Shawn is a good match for the actor. The surrogate father-son relationship they develop is fraught with emotions and genuinely moving. The Canadians are also well cast. Although the movie features a lot of sentimental moments, the actors, story and filmmakers earn them all.
A real-life tale about a grave injustice overcome by right and love, "The Hurricane" sets the record straight and serves as inspiration for audiences of all ages, creeds and colors. Like the boxer it depicts, it's a true champion.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence.
Denzel Washington: Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
Vicellus Reon Shannon: Lesra
Liev Schreiber: Sam Chaiton
David Paymer: Myron Bedlock
John Hannah: Terry Swinton
A Universal Pictures presentation. Director Norman Jewison. Screenplay Dan Gordon and Armyan Bernstein. Book Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. Producers John Ketcham, Norman Jewison and Armyan Bernstein. Director of photography Roger Deakins. Editor Stephen Rivkin. Music Christopher Young. Production designer Philip Rosenberg. Costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Art directors Dennis Davenport and Patricia Woodbridge. Set decorators Gordon Sim and Ellen Christiansen. Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes