The Hurricane

“The Hurricane” is an unbelievable movie, and I don’t mean that in a good way. For being based on a true story, it sure comes across at times as remarkably unrealistic.

I don’t doubt that the way the events unfold in the innocent-man-goes-to-prison drama are more or less the way they really happened; truth is, after all, often stranger than fiction.

But that’s not a good defense. Fictional or not, events and characters in movies have to come across as real. And “The Hurricane” just has too much that doesn’t.

Denzel Washington plays Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a boxing champ in the ’60s who spent 15 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit.

Washington is stellar in the role, playing the character at several ages between 20 and 50, and doing a fine job each time. He brings dignity and realism to a film that, aside from him, is slight and muddling.

We first see Carter as a kid, knifing in self-defense a middle-aged child molestor who first hits on one of Carter’s friends, then threatens to throw Carter over a cliff. (The scene is no less odd to see than it is to read about.)

A gruff New Jersey cop named Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya, playing the role with one dimension, if that) doesn’t like black people, so Carter doesn’t even get a fair trial: He’s sent to juvenile hall. He busts out at age 18 and joins the military; upon his discharge, he is promptly jailed again. He gets out later and becomes a successful boxer. One night two black men walk into a bar and shoot up the place, killing three people. Della Pesca manipulates the situation to make it look like Carter was one of the shooters, and he and his buddy go to prison based entirely on circumstantial evidence.

Della Pesca is so convinced of Carter’s badness that he spies on him, trails him, practically stalks him, just waiting for him to slip up. Why? Because he’s black, and because he stabbed that guy a bunch of years ago. Sorry, I ain’t buyin’ it. Della Pesca calls Carter “a lifetime criminal,” even though he only committed one “crime,” and it was self-defense, and it was at age 11.

While in prison (where, by the way, he refuses to wear prison-issue clothing — and is granted permission not to!), Carter writes a book about his innocence. Troubled black youth Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon) buys it for a quarter at a used-book sale, reads it, and becomes pen pals with Carter, whose innocence he is convinced of.

Lesra lives with three bland Canadians who either live on a commune (does three people living together constitute a commune?) or do something vague and at-home for a living, and who are home-schooling Lesra, having plucked him from his inauspicious surroundings in Brooklyn.

One of these bland Canadians is played by bland Liev Schriber, who keeps saying bland, philosophical things like, “Sometimes we don’t pick the books we read. They pick us.”

Well, these three plucky (but still bland) Canadians move to New Jersey in order to devote themselves full-time to proving Carter’s innocence. (They either quit their jobs or didn’t have jobs to quit — either way, I don’t know how they’re affording all this, and if the movie knows, it’s not telling us.) Before long, they’ve uncovered, “Scooby-Doo”-style, several important bits of evidence that Carter’s lawyers were unable to dig up in 10 years of investigating.

Naturally, Della Pesca doesn’t like these meddling Canadians and their snooping, so he threatens them with some very harsh language and one-dimensional acting. (Seems he’s racist against Canadians, too.)

They finally get enough evidence to bring the case before a federal judge (Rod Steiger), in a scene replete with your standard courtroom-drama cliches and pat endings.

It’s all a true story, more or less, and it’s not dull; Washington is compelling enough as an actor to carry almost anything (witness the by-the-numbers “Bone Collector” earlier this year). The film wants to be about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and Washington almost pulls that off by himself. He is the one believable element in a film that reeks of Hollywood triteness and generic screenwriting, and he elevates “The Hurricane” from so-so to slightly above so-so status.

B- (; R, fairly heavy profanity, brief prison nudity,.)