Major League: Wesley Snipes in Focus
March 31-April 9 at BAM
The 25th anniversary of the release of Ron Shelton’s beloved and irresistible interracial sports bromance White Men Can’t Jump is the token occasion of BAM’s 11-film tribute to its co-lead, Wesley Snipes, but of course no tie-in is necessary to celebrate the work of one of the finest and most versatile actors the American star system has yet produced. Snipes’s greatness touched the 80s and aughts, but it was at a belief-defying crest during the entirety of the 90s, as he bounced between action, comedy and drama with what scanned as enviable ease. Dark and handsome, the Orlando-born, Bronx-raised Snipes proved himself equally graceful at projecting menacing charisma (New Jack City), goofy naiveté (Major League) and cool precision (Boiling Point), with countless shades in between. A practicing martial artist since age 12, the now accomplished and well-belted fighter has been at his most bankable wielding firearms or swords, but his path to action star has included fruitful detours as a paraplegic, drag queen and multiple conflicted, straying husbands. Snipes is also famous for his conviction on charges of income tax evasion, for which he served three years in prison before being released in April 2013, but his understandable aversion to handing over millions to the IRS has little bearing on his acting work. Though his output has cooled and he’s now better known for his Twitter feed (emoji-heavy and full of clapbacks and nostalgia) than current credits, it’s freshly stunning to admire the onscreen vigor and occasional vulnerability he managed in so many of his heyday roles.
Birthday boy White Men Can’t Jump is the one to catch or revisit here if you can only see one. Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who also appeared together in Wildcats and Money Train, play Los Angeles street basketball hustlers whose initial rivalry blossoms into a lucrative pairing, with the con generally premised upon the cornily dressed white dude’s assumed inability. The film would be just as essential an inclusion in a series dedicated to Harrelson, another actor who can alternate deftly between genres, and also Rosie Perez, in her star-making role as Harrelson’s perkily combative, Jeopardy-obsessed girlfriend. Shelton practically had the lightly likable sports movie market cornered in the late 80s and early 90s with titles like Bull Durham, Blue Chips (screenplay) and Cobb, but none of those had the seismic X factor that is Snipes’s explosive energy and watchability. His Sidney Deane is a shit-talking showboat, telling women on the edge of the court, “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m the greatest.” He values the “prettiness” of his game compared to Woody’s clunky efficiency, but he still wins, and Shelton camouflages the possible shortcomings of the actors’ basketball skills with artful slow motion during the big plays. Off the court, there is also lovely, golden-toned Venice Beach and Santa Monica local color, and small moments like Sidney blacksplaining Jimi Hendrix to Woody’s Billy, who Sidney claims only listens to Jimi without hearing him (though it’s a screenplay stretch to swallow that Sidney wouldn’t know that the Experience rhythm section was white).
There are knottier issues in Shelton’s film, like the sometimes labored “playing the Dozens” ventriloquizing and the white fantasy of a court full of black athletes in awe at a white player’s superior cornfed talent (putting an uppity hotshot in his place into the bargain), but these aren’t demerits on its general bonhomie and life wisdom. Snipes had laid the groundwork for Sidney with his Willie Mays Hayes in 1989’s Major League, David S. Ward’s warmly humanistic and endlessly quotable MLB Bad News Bears. Hayes can’t hit, but he has the brashness and base-stealing abilities of Rickey Henderson when he’s able to get on. Hayes’s humbling is much more pronounced than Sidney’s, epitomized by his head-first slide into second that comes up short, part of a montage of Indians ineptitude. The 27-year-old Snipes is at his most baldly sweet and comic here, and, like Bob “Juuust a bit outside” Uecker, he makes a big impression despite not having the character development of the Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen or Corbin Bernsen parts.
Snipes soon followed a role in the Abel Ferrara masterpiece King of New York with a variation on that film’s crime lord central character, in Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991). Snipes’s incredibly attractive and sinister performance as rising power-drunk Harlem drug kingpin Nino Brown is in sync with the film’s operatic excessiveness and graphic novel-like setpieces and plot turns. More nuanced than Al Pacino’s spasmodic Scarface, Snipes’s Nino has shades of Bogart and Brando, but with an itchier trigger finger (bodies pile up with near-comic indiscrimination in Van Peebles’s pulpy vision). He’s matched by a never-better Ice-T as an undercover cop; the two size each other up in a memorable slow motion nightclub circling soundtracked by Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show”.
Spike Lee, a fan of Snipes in Martin Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” became a collaborator after Snipes turned down a part in Do the Right Thing but later appeared in Mo’ Better Blues and then starred in Jungle Fever (1991), his first meaty dramatic part (he’d also go on to play Cyclops in 2015’s Chi-Raq). In Lee’s ambitious meditation on interracial romance, Snipes is the suspenders and round-rimmed spectacles-sporting married architect (with the groan-inducing, screenwriterly name Flipper Purify) who begins an affair with his white Italian assistant (Annabella Sciorra) out of curiosity, a whim which detonates the tranquility of the lives of those surrounding both parties. It’s an idea movie more than a love story, so it can be forgiven for the leads’ lack of chemistry, and for Lee’s long detours with Flipper’s drug-addicted brother (a just-out-of-rehab Samuel L. Jackson), whose personal fever is only different than Flipper’s in the particulars, Lee implies. Less forgivable is Lee’s typical clumsiness depicting Italian-Americans (see also: Son of Sam) and the overwrought score by Terence Blanchard that drowns every scene in sentiment. The film’s best exchange is about Flipper, but Snipes is absent, as his wife and her friends’ “war committee” comically riff and emotionally unload their thoughts and feelings on black men’s complicated relationship with female skin tone. Snipes would play another interracial white collar philanderer in idiosyncratic auteur Mike Figgis’s One Night Stand (1997). Initially written by Joe Eszterhas before he removed his name, it’s a slick and brisk morality play when it isn’t being bogged down by Robert Downey, Jr.’s martyr-y performance as a doomed AIDS victim, the showiness of which contrasts with Snipes’s understatement.
1992’s Passenger 57, in which Snipes plays a retired cop and flight defense trainer who faces down a terrorist threat in several cleanly choreographed fight scenes in tight confines, established Snipes as an action star, begetting roles in titles like Murder at 1600, U.S. Marshals and Demolition Man, and culminating in three turns as a vampire-hunting daywalker in the hugely successful Blade series. Two of the strictly diversionary, violent, loud, Marvel-sourced movies will screen together at BAM, and both (especially Guillermo del Toro’s more individualized second installment) are worth seeing in large part for Snipes’s smooth, leathery gravitas, and his touching relationship with weapon-maker and mentor Kris Kristofferson.
A more leftfield option here is Walter Hill’s punishing prison boxing movie Undisputed (2002), with Snipes as the stoic in-house champ who fashions popsicle stick sculptures in solitary confinement and eventually faces incarcerated heavyweight champion Ving Rhames in an incredibly well-edited and brutal climactic cage match (bonus: as a wise, hobbling mafia boss, Peter Falk delivers an indelible string of F-bombs). There are surely fine and mundane reasons for the few regrettable omissions (Boiling Point, Brooklyn’s Finest, etc.), but what’s here presents an overwhelming argument for the actor’s icon status, as an artist with a facility for both drama and comedy that equals that of De Niro.