"White Men Can't Jump” is a movie about black basketball hustlers and a white guy who cons some of them and is conned by the others. But that plot description doesn't begin to do justice to this movie, which is all about language and timing and loyalty and betrayal, and is very smart and very funny.
The movie takes place on the asphalt outdoor basketball courts of Los Angeles - on Venice Beach, in the Crenshaw neighborhood, in Watts and wherever else money is wagered on the outcome of the game. It stars Wesley Snipes as a black basketball hustler whose other jobs are suffering because of the downturn in the economy, and Woody Harrelson as a white guy from out of town who uses his goofy look (floppy shorts, backwards cap and a distracted grin) to lure victims into betting on his game. Neither one of these guys hustles basketball purely for the enjoyment of the game. Snipes does it to make money (his wife is on his case) and Harrelson does it at least partly because he's a compulsive gambler.
What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other's minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.
It's interesting that this is not simply a basketball movie.