“Never back down.”
That’s what makes Adam Sandler’s new Philly flick ‘Hustle’ a great sports movie and an even greater cinematic achievement—it never backs down.
Directed by Philadelphia filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar and co-produced by Sandler for Netflix, the basketball-themed dramedy was filmed between October 2020 and 2021 at Philadelphia landmarks like the Italian Market, Loews Hotel, as well as up-and-down the hills of Manayunk, Center City and Northern Liberties, and throughout South Philly’s Wells Fargo Center — the home to Sandler’s talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Sports radio local Anthony Gargano, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, current Sixers and legends Dr. J, Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley, as well as Philadelphia rappers Tierra Whack, Freeway and Beanie Sigel, were all in on ‘Hustle’.
On Tuesday night, for its local pre-Netflix premiere, the Philadelphia Film Center was packed to the rafters, not only with city officials such as Greater Philly Film Office Executive Director Sharon Pinkenson, but also the aforementioned rappers and several 76ers. Zagar returned home and brought surprise guests Sandler and two of the film’s co-stars, Juancho Hernangomez and Raúl Castillo, along for the ride.
A Philly-proud pep talk and a ‘welcome home’ for Zagar from Garganos—who recalled the young director’s early life working at TLA Video off-South Street—was followed a brief introduction of the ballers in the cast, and a shout-out to Whack, whose track, “Heaven,” is featured in the film.
“When she sings, “Heaven is my favorite people,” that is what all of you are to me,” said the director, quietly, from the stage of the Philadelphia Film Center.
That’s when Sandler took the mic. Wearing huge orange sneakers and the beard he donned in ‘Hustle’, the actor-producer shouted out Doc Rivers, and mentioned his love for the 76ers’ team players and front office. “And I’m a Knicks fans,” he said, holding back a laugh. Sandler quickly credited Zagar and the film’s screenwriters Philly native Will Fetters and Taylor Materne, with whom Sandler helped polish the script.
“For the Philly of it all,” he said.
Joking about this city’s toughest critics —Philadelphia sports fans — Sandler teased, “I found out that you really do care. I hope that you like my movie: my mother is here.”
Sandler received a custom Liberty Bell from City Representative Shelia Hess, which he replied, “I’m going to ring this all night long, guys.”
As for the cinematic work, Zagar’s film is smart, wryly humorous, warm, yet cutting and without sentimentality… and always masterful.
And all with a Philadelphia backdrop.
When it comes to the aspirational tales of both scout Stanley Sugerman (Sandler) and baller Bo Cruz (Hernangomez), the film never allows the audience to feel sorry for the underdogs. Perhaps, that is because Sandler and Hernangomez’s performances feel so honest and real – aided by the surroundings of real-life basketball greats, present and past. With that, ‘Hustle’ just barely feels like a work of fiction, a vibe aided by Zagar’s vivid and raw capture of basketball moments—from street court pick-up games to NBA draft combines to scenes at Wells Fargo Center.
The audience gets a sense of the characters’ weariness of the lives they had to get to this point. But, even when shaken, there is the motto upon which Sandler relies — “Never back down.”
‘Hustle‘ is now streaming on Netflix.