League of His Own

Nick Pinkerton on Wesley Snipes

Ron Shelton, White Men Can’t Jump, 1992, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes.

IN A STORM-TOSSED MODERN WORLD, Wesley Snipes’s Twitter feed is an island of calm. It’s heavy on nostalgia—with production photographs from the set of White Men Can’t Jump (1992), for example—and rather profound conversation prompts (“At what age did you realize the world you live in was not your friend?”), as well as ice-cold troll executions and sage declarations that merge the Afrocentric and humanist, a typical sampling being: “Every ethnicity is absolutely beautiful and worthy. I’m simply reminding my brothers and sisters WE ARE OF ROYALTY.” He seems like he’s in a good headspace, which is an odd thing to say about an actor who you’ve never met, but dammit, I’ve always wanted the best for Wesley Snipes, who embodies a rare combination of traits: an imperious and, yes, royal gravity, and an irresistible common-man likeability.

Snipes is the subject of an eleven-film career overview at BAMcinématek, for which no excuse is necessary, though it can be explained as a homecoming for the onetime resident of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, or as a birthday party, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of White Men Can’t Jump. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the don of sports films, the film stars Snipes as gravity-defiant Los Angeles streetballer Sidney Deane, florid in his play and his trash talk, who sets up a lucrative pickup game hustle with Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle, who opponents assume can’t ball because, well, he looks like Woody Harrelson. A peerless crowd-pleaser with a persistent downbeat undertone and a democratic spirit that doesn’t see fit to sidestep interracial jibing and ball-busting, it’s a beautiful bit of pop moviemaking. As the most across-the-board nightmarish presidential election in memory was getting well underway last summer, it took a rewatch to remind me that I usually dig this country.

Snipes wasn’t a hoopster as a kid, but a dojo rat. Born in Orlando, and raised mostly in the Bronx, he split his early years between Karate and acting. Most of the world got their first glimpse of him in one of the few moving-picture works of the past thirty years that most of the world actually saw, the eighteen-minute Martin Scorsese–directed short film/music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” where he barked the eternal question “Are you bad or what?” at MJ in a tenement lobby. He registers as pure ebony opposite the pale Jackson of 1987, a time that favored lighter-skinned black actors—but the calls started coming in. Morris Chestnut, in a 2013 interview, credited Snipes for “bust[ing] the mold open.” If “Bad” made Snipes a known face, he became a star by way of Major League (1989), something like the platonic ideal of a ragtag-bunch-of-losers sports movie, in which he played mouthy center-fielder Millie Mays Hayes, a speed demon on the base paths whose batting average malingers beneath the Mendoza Line. By the time a sequel came along in 1994, Snipes was out of their budget.

Snipes had turned down a part in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) to take the Hayes role, but would work with Lee on Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), and, most recently, the misbegotten Chi-Raq (2015), in which Snipes is easily the best thing. Watching Jungle Fever, which will play BAM, one is reminded how even in Lee’s early, hungry years, his style—expressionistic camerawork, caricaturist characterization, Brechtian breakthroughs—was always flirting with catastrophe. Revolving around a midtown tryst between a married black architect (Snipes) who lives in Harlem and his Bensonhurst-based Italian American secretary (Annabella Sciorra), the movie packs in a hallucinatory visit to “the Trump Towers of crack dens,” clunky depositions on colorism, the most alarming final shot in film history, and a whole lotta scenery-gnawing supporting performances, both bad (Anthony Quinn, as the father of Sideshow Bob–haired John Turturro) and good (Samuel L. Jackson’s sniveling addict Gator).

Released the same year as Jungle Fever, Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City offered more crackhead histrionics—these courtesy of Chris Rock—and more ruminations on African American/Italian American relations in New York City. “Fuck them scungilli-eatin’ motherfuckers. This is our thing. They don’t want to roll with it, we’ll roll over them,” declares Snipes’s drug kingpin Nino Brown after hearing something he doesn’t like from La Cosa Nostra while on his way to taking over the underworld, opposed by the erstwhile “Cop Killer” Ice-T, embarking on a long acting career in the police department. The part established Snipes as a heavy, while Passenger 57 (1992) was his leap to bona fide hero status, one of a long lineage of plane-hijacking action pictures from Cy Endfield’s Jet Storm (1959) to Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop (2014). If nothing else, Passenger 57 is remembered for Snipes’s delivery of the one-liner “Always bet on black,” delivered at the end of an emphatic dolly shot recalling the one that introduces John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939)—to be a fly on the wall when they were getting that one off!—but there’s some good close-quarters hand-to-hand and crisp roundhouses, and it goes down easy with a couple of beers. Demolition Man (1993), certainly one of the decade’s oddest blockbusters, returned Snipes to villainy—his dastardly Simon Phoenix and supercop nemesis John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) are tossed into “cryo-penitentiary” in 1996 and unthawed in the gelded, politically-correct dystopia of 2032. The feature-film debut of multihyphenate artist Marco Brambilla, it plays a bit like one of Paul Verhoeven’s stupid-smart satirical blockbusters if Verhoeven couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag, but it deserves credit for locating the latent camp potential of Snipes, who’s in fine fettle. As Phoenix, Snipes wears the blond high-top fade decades before Odell Beckham Jr., and his sartorial daring transcends the rote comedy of the drag-queen road trip To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), whose entertainment value rests heavily on Snipes’s snaps and costume changes.

Walter Hill, Undisputed, 2002, 35 mm, color, sound 94 minutes.

A couple of what I rate as Snipes’s best early films won’t be playing BAM—Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) and James B. Harris’s Boiling Point (1993), which fall into that category of crime-thrillers that were usually called “neo-noir” in the 1980s and 1990s for lack of any better descriptor. The latter film, in particular, which has Snipes’s Treasury officer trailing trigger-happy young Viggo Mortensen and old-timer Dennis Hopper through a contemporary Los Angeles where the World War II–era dance emporiums are still open for business, shows how this actor better known for showboating was also more than capable of playing things close to the vest. (I make this aside about the absence of these titles knowing full well that these sort of peanut gallery “But what about . . .?” complaints are easy for journalists to make but don’t take into account the exigencies of getting projectable materials, and only to say that both titles are worth seeking out.)

Unbeknownst to all involved, midrange macho genre works like Ferrara’s and Harris’s films—or even Passenger 57—would become an endangered species in the twenty-first century, increasingly marginalized in favor of triangulating tentpoles based on preexisting properties, superhero characters above all. Snipes would suffer from this change in time, but not before he profited from it, starring in Blade (1998), the first commercially successful attempt to transfer a Marvel Comics creation to the big screen, with Snipes giving a gruff, grave performance as a “daywalker” half-human half-vampire who’s sworn to destroy the Nosferatu, a character who’d been around in comics since the early ’70s. I didn’t cotton much to Blade when I saw it as a teenager, but nearly twenty years and ten thousand overstuffed superhero movies later, it’s harder to resist the genuine eccentricity of a picture that begins with a bloodbath rave and features Kris Kristofferson, Traci Lords, and Udo Kier, whose explosion is a highlight in the bonanza of cheapjack CGI.

Blade, which plays BAMcinématek along with the inferior Guillermo del Toro–directed sequel, gave Snipes a franchise, a steady paycheck, and a “martial-arts choreographer” credit, but he saved his best shots for Walter Hill’s combination prison/boxing picture Undisputed (2002). Snipes is Monroe Hutchens, an undefeated fighter who has held on to his title for an astonishing ten years—the ten years he’s been locked up at Sweetwater prison on a life-sentence homicide rap. His stiffest challenge arrives when big, bad George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), the champion of the outside world, arrives in Sweetwater to serve time on a rape charge—the Mike Tyson parallels are not coincidental. Chambers gets more screen time than Hutchens in the lead-up to the inevitable bout, but Snipes makes every minute count, playing a tight-lipped, Spartan protagonist of the sort that Hill had been specializing in since his Charles Bronson–starring directorial debut, Hard Times (1975). Hill’s preoccupations dovetail perfectly with Snipes’s meditative philosopher-warrior persona—in both Passenger 57 and Blade he burns incense; here, he builds a pagoda of toothpicks and offers pearls such as, “In the end, everybody gets beaten. The most you can hope for is that you stay on top a while.”

Despite meager box-office takings, Undisputed became a minor cult item, followed by three-and-counting direct-to-DVD features with significant charms of their own, two from the master of the discount bins, Isaac Florentine. Snipes himself was increasingly relegated to work in nontheatrical films in the years ahead, which was really the least of his problems, as Undisputed began to look like a harbinger of things to come. Beginning in 2006, he was the subject of a very public tax fraud investigation, which ended in a stay at the McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania from December 2010 to April of 2013. Since coming out, the work has been lean, though The Expendables 3 (2014)—the only fully satisfying entry in that series—gave him a great prison-breakout set piece as a kind of welcome back, and found him still spry and dead game. Now he’s got a new movie coming along in the summer and is apparently working on something called “Project Action Star,” which looks like either the semiretirement of reality TV or a pyramid scheme. Hopefully, there’s still more to come, but like the man says, “The most you can hope for is that you stay on top a while”—and his has been a fine, benevolent reign.

“Major League: Wesley Snipes in Focus” runs March 31 through April 9 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.