You hope for Dorothy Lamour, reclining against a palm tree in her sarong, when you hear the title The Hurricane. Instead, you get well over two hours of Denzel Washington huddled in a cell. In the poster art, Washington glowers, one bandaged fist cocked for a right to our jaw. He may play a boxer, but this isn't a boxing movie, and when he goes to prison, it isn't a prison picture, either. It's just a series of scenes that allow Washington to deliver soul-stirring little speeches -- a string of Oscar clips.
The Hurricane is one of far too many films that Washington has made over the past five years that seems perversely designed to make us forget that the man is, at his best, a great actor. In the '80s and early '90s, Washington might have made the role of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter scary and likable and full of surprises; here, his performance is halfhearted, soft. Though he's trimmed down impressively and looks great, he hasn't recaptured his earlier excitement in acting. Washington reportedly campaigned hard to win the role of Hurricane Carter, and it isn't hard to see why: It's a compelling story. In 1966, Carter, a middleweight boxing champ from Paterson, N.J., was indicted, with another man, for a triple murder, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison, all on evidence now generally believed to have been manufactured. The case became a cause célèbre: Muhammad Ali, Ellen Burstyn and, most famously, Bob Dylan all lobbied for Carter's release. Dylan's 1975 song "Hurricane," which plays enough times in the movie to last anyone for a long while, was a key to the case's national notoriety.
The script is based on two books -- this, perhaps, is part of the trouble with it. The first half of the movie is based on Carter's own memoir, The Sixteenth Round, published in 1974 while he was still in prison. It traces Carter's life up to his incarceration in a fairly perfunctory way. The second half is based on Lazarus and the Hurricane by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, and it dramatizes how Chaiton (Liev Schreiber), Swinton (John Hannah) and another Canadian political activist (played by Deborah Kara Unger) became involved in Carter's legal fight when Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), the teenage African-American foster kid who lived with them, took up a friendly correspondence with the convict after reading his book. The plot, in its broad outlines, has the sort of eccentricity that only a true story can have. But the screenwriters, Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, and the director, Norman Jewison, couldn't find a focused structure out of which to deliver emotional payoffs to the audience.
There's one good scene early on, when the young Carter (Mitchell Taylor Jr.) fights off a white pedophile (John A. Mackay). After that, the action stops, and the narration, spoken by Washington, starts. Carter is sent to the reformatory for defending himself, and the narration informs us that life in the reformatory was tough. Then he escapes, and the narration assures us that he became a great fighter. For proof, we are offered several not-very-convincing boxing scenes. (A former professional boxer told me that even the detail of the referee telling Carter and his opponent to "touch gloves" -- the film's first line -- rather than "shake hands" was bizarrely inaccurate.)
Then Carter is sent to prison for the murders. He vows to become a "warrior-scholar" and to turn his body into a weapon, as in a martial-arts movie. He also bucks the prison authorities -- we get a whiff of The Shawshank Redemption. There's even an appearance as a guard by Clancy Brown, who played a guard in Shawshank. When the film gets to the friendship between Carter and Lesra, it goes all virtuous and schmaltzy, although Shannon -- a youthful-looking twentysomething -- has a nice natural quality to his acting. Finally, when the three stereotypically kind, polite, patient Canadians start probing the mystery, the movie veers dangerously close to Scooby Doo territory. You half expect the rotten detective who framed the Hurricane, played by Dan Hedaya, to shake his fist at them and say, "I'd've gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids."
Still, muddled and sappy and overlong as it is, The Hurricane might have been redeemed, at least partly, by the kind of fiery performance that Washington used to give as a matter of routine. He fought his way to stardom with a series of brilliant turns in such varied films as A Soldier's Story, Power, Cry Freedom, Heart Condition, Glory, Ricochet, Philadelphia, Much Ado About Nothing and Malcolm X. Some of these were terrific movies, others were terrible, but either way, Washington was vibrantly good. Not long after attaining star status, however, he seemed to become a champ with little interest in defending his title. He started coasting through bland leading-man duties in play-it-safe pictures like The Pelican Brief, Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire and Fallen, among others. I'd put The Hurricane in the same category, although the scale of the role may work for him -- he has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance.
Several other fine actors are stuck in the shambles of this production, among them David Paymer and Harris Yulin as lawyers, Al Waxman as the warden and Badja Djola as an old African convict. None does the sort of work he's capable of. Rod Steiger plays a judge. He also played a judge in Crazy in Alabama, and compared with that performance and some of his other recent work, his acting in The Hurricane seems like a model of restraint and understatement. In anyone else, it would seem like psychosis.
Opens Jan. 14.