It's almost impossible to imagine "The Hurricane," Norman Jewison's heartfelt political drama, without Denzel Washington in the lead role of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the black boxer who was wrongly convicted of triple murder and sent to prison, where he spent 19 years before being exonerated and released in 1985. Inspirational and uplifting in the manner of old-fashioned American sagas about racial injustice, pic will likely be embraced by holiday-season audiences of all ages and races.

It’s almost impossible to imagine “The Hurricane,” Norman Jewison’s heartfelt political drama, without Denzel Washington in the lead role of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the black boxer who was wrongly convicted of triple murder and sent to prison, where he spent 19 years before being exonerated and released in 1985. In what’s easily his most zealous and fully realized performance since “Malcolm X,” Washington elevates the earnest, occasionally simplistic narrative to the level of a genuinely touching moral expose. Inspirational and uplifting in the manner of old-fashioned American sagas about racial injustice, pic will likely be embraced by holiday-season audiences of all ages and races.

After a decade of directing mostly light commercial fare (“January Man,” “Only You”), Jewison here returns to the kind of issue-oriented film for which he is best known (the Oscar-winning “In the Heat of the Night,” “A Soldier’s Story”). But the emotional impact of this story is slightly diminished by the solemn air of the proceedings, particularly in the prolonged, jail-set midsection.

“Hurricane” doesn’t quite qualify as a fully fleshed biopic; Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon’s richly detailed script, based on two books, skips several crucial chapters in its hero’s life and consciously takes some liberties with the facts, particularly in its chronicle of how three students became committed to Carter’s case until they succeeded in getting him out of prison.

The first sequence intercuts between 1963, when middleweight boxer Rubin Carter has a big fight with Emile Griffith, and 1973, when Carter is in Trenton State Prison, angrily protesting that the authorities are after his book manuscript, which he perceives as his only chance for being acquitted of the false charges.

Brief flashbacks re-create the 1966 murder, in which three people are killed by two gunmen in the Lafayette Bar in Paterson, N.J. This murder leads to the arrest of Carter and a young fan, John Artis (Garland Whitt), who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are brought to the hospital, where one of the wounded victims, who can barely see, identifies them as the killers under the manipulation of a malevolent cop, Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya).

Cut to Toronto, seven years later, when a black youth named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon) picks up Carter’s autobiography for a quarter. In a bizarre and fateful turn of events that would have warmed the heart of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, the yarn suggests how the random act of a book purchase can change one’s life. After reading the book, Lesra, an alienated American teenager, finds direction and purpose for the first time in his life.

A product of poor, illiterate parents, Lesra has been “adopted” by three Canadian students, Terry Swinton (John Hannah), Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger) and Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber), who bring him to their bohemian apartment in Toronto. Instinctively convinced of Carter’s innocence, Lesra begins corresponding with the boxer, soon enlisting his social-activist guardians to mount a full-time campaign for his release.

The Canadian activists basically put their lives on hold to fight for Carter, eventually gaining his freedom. Depicting the emergence of esprit de corps, the tale emphasizes that the trio of students and Lesra form a unique kind of extended family.

The dynamics between Lesra and Carter form the emotional thrust of the story, with the latter gradually assuming the role of Lesra’s surrogate father. But the bond is mutually rewarding; Lesra becomes Carter’s only ray of light. Before meeting the young man, Carter had cut himself off from all those around him. In a painful scene, after securing a second trial (in which he is again convicted), Carter forces his wife (Debbi Morgan) to divorce him and never visit him again; he can’t even bear to see his little daughter.

Integrated into the proceedings are flashbacks to an incident that occurred when Carter, as a boy, got involved in an attack on a white man that put him face to face with Della Pesca, a corrupt and racist cop whose driving force in life is seemingly to incarcerate Carter.

The weakest scenes are those involving Carter’s isolation, which becomes his mode of survival in prison, and the exchange of letters between him and Lesra, which are solemnly read. And Jewison doesn’t dramatize in an interesting way Carter’s spirituality, how he throws away his law books and begins to search within himself. But the picture is effective in placing Carter in the broader historical context, perceiving this particular case of injustice as symbolic of the way blacks, especially prominent and controversial figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, were treated by the white establishment. Indeed, in the 1970s, Carter’s plight became a cause celebre, inspiring protests by such luminaries as actress Ellen Burstyn and a popular ballad by Bob Dylan. Pic offers cynical commentary on the politics of celebs, suggesting the fleeting nature of their involvement.

Whether intentionally or not, the filmmakers end up mythologizing Carter as a saint, an approach that may be partly determined by the factual material but also reflects the film’s ’60s sensibility. Even so, “The Hurricane” is so intriguingly plotted and captivatingly acted that it’s easy to overlook its dramatic flaws and overall soft gaze.

Having lost more than 40 pounds, a trim Washington delivers a soaring, intense performance, arguably the richest in his already impressive career. He inhabits all the disparate moods of the yarn.

While the central figure dominates, all the thesps do well in the same emotionally truthful vein, especially Shannon as the idealistic youth, and Unger, Schreiber and Hannah as the Canadian activists. Only exception is Hedaya, who plays the one-dimensional villain as a figure out of a Greek tragedy.

Production values are good across the board, notably Roger Deakins’ lensing, which mutes the colors when the story gets more somber (in prison) and brings them back for the more upbeat finale.

The Hurricane

Production

A Universal release of a Beacon Pictures presentation of an Azoff Films/Rudy Langlais production. Produced by Armyan Bernstein, John Ketcham, Norman Jewison. Executive producers, Irving Azoff, Tom Rosenberg, Rudy Langlais, Thomas A. Bliss, Marc Abraham, William Teitler. Co-producers, Suzann Ellis, Michael Jewison, Jon Jashni. Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay, Armyan Bernstein, Dan Gordon, based on the books "The Sixteenth Round" by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and "Lazarus and the Hurricane" by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton.

With

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter - Denzel Washington Lesra - Vicellous Reon Shannon Lisa - Deborah Kara Unger Sam - Liev Schreiber Terry - John Hannah Della Pesca - Dan Hedaya Mae Thelma - Debbi Morgan Lt. Jimmy Williams - Clancy Brown Myron Bedlock - David Paymer Leon Friedman - Harris Yulin Judge Sarokin - Rod Steiger John Artis - Garland Whitt
Camera (Deluxe color), Roger Deakins; editor, Stephen Rivkin; music, Christopher Young; music supervisor, G. Marq Roswell; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; art director, Dennis Davenport; set decorator, Gordon Sim; costume designer, Aggie Guerard Rodgers; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Bruce Carwardine; supervising sound editors, Michael O'Farrell, Wayne Griffin; assistant director, J.J. Authors; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at the Beverly Connection, L.A., Nov. 29, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 125 MIN.

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