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By Heather Iger

JANUARY 17, 2000:  On a dark and ill-fated eve in June of 1966, African-American boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and a friend left a New Jersey nightclub after a night out on the town. When they were pulled over by the cops, Carter -- contender for the middleweight boxing title -- was arbitrarily accused and wrongly convicted of the murder of three neighborhood bar patrons and ordered to serve three consecutive life sentences. His story inspired legendary folksinger and champion of just causes Bob Dylan to write the song "Hurricane" and encouraged countless others to protest. But in spite of all the hoopla, Carter remained imprisoned for nearly 30 years for a crime he didn't commit.

After being kicked off the team for Malcolm X because he's a honky, director Norman Jewison (Moonstruck, Agnes of God, A Soldier's Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, to name a few) takes a stab at Carter's biographical sketch with The Hurricane. Denzel Washington is again picked to portray an unfortunate motherfucker. Washington was quite strong as Malcolm X and, once again, he shows audiences a dynamic performance. But, honestly, how many black cultural icons can Washington portray before we tire of this saintly typecasting?

If we fail to really care what happens to The Hurricane in his on-screen bio, the blame is not in the acting but in the treatment of the story. In a miscalculated attempt to articulate Carter's place in time and history, the intensity and humanity of Carter's own story is mistakenly obscured. Instead of providing a reference point at which to properly contextualize this miscarriage of justice, our attention is constantly diverted from his story to history. The effect is sadly dehumanizing. As Rubin's trial lawyers point out in the film, the Bob Dylans, the hippies and the politicians come and go, but no one stuck it out until they focused on the real person in the story, not merely the story's social implications -- a lesson that this film, unfortunately, fails to heed.

Years after his arrest and the resultant furor, the movie tells us, a Brooklyn-born youth (played here by Vicellious Shannon) discovered Hurricane's autobiographical book, The 16th Round, in a bookstore bargain bin. The precocious teen established a relationship with Rubin and successfully encouraged his three Canadian friends to take an interest in Carter. The filmmakers misuse this subplot to get arty -- the mood and fluidity of the piece is repeatedly disrupted by a staggering combination of flashbacks and cuts to the Canadian crusaders and their righteous battle.

Jewison obviously thinks his audience's attention span is pretty limited. Not only are the little jolts and technical events relentless, but there is a stylistic shift every other scene. For starters, we're given faux fight footage -- black and white with quick dollies, extreme close-ups and slow-mos in a sloppy, contrived Raging Bull kind of way. Next, we have a Quentin Tarantino moment, with dialogue like: "It's the great black champion ... " "I got your great black champion between my legs, you short, punk-ass bitch!" (Did people even use that kind of slang in '66?) Later, we're subjected to a cheesy mental deterioration sequence which is just downright laughable. There's also the detective/suspense angle, a black vs. white polemic, a biblical slant, love vs. hate, triumph of the will -- all done as cliché as the winter holidays and doused with lofty orchestration. It's as if this is the last movie Jewison will ever make, and he had to be sure to sandwich every camera style and every filmmaking genre into it. These schizophrenic shifts lack cohesion and artistry, and the otherwise interesting story is continually botched in the hands of this showy director.

The viewer is forced, not invited, into the emotional aspects of the film. The Hurricane pummels its audience with broad, sweeping and grandiose statements about racism, hate and injustice. The enticement to get really worked up and squeal about our distaste for prejudice and dirty cops is overwhelming. It's not until the filmmakers cut the heavyhanded crap and allow the story to progress naturally that any sympathy for the character is able to develop.

The Hurricane is yet another good story gone bad. But it's your choice: You can pack the family in the minivan and head over to the multiplex to watch this astoundingly mediocre flick. Then you can all rally together in your abhorrence of social injustice and feel real good about yourselves for your high-minded idealism. Or you could spend the 20-plus bucks you would've shelled out at the theater buying a blanket for a real live homeless person who's freezing his chicharones off in the alleyway behind you.

Yeah, that's what I thought you'd do.

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