Varsity Blues

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Jonathan “Mox” Moxon (James Van Der Beek) is an intelligent and academically gifted backup quarterback for the West Canaan High School football team. Despite his relative popularity at school, easy friendships with other players, and smart and sassy girlfriend Jules Harbor (Amy Smart), Mox is dissatisfied with his life. He wants to leave Texas to go to school at Brown University. He is constantly at odds with his football-obsessed father (Thomas F. Duffy) and dreads playing it under legendary coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), a verbally abusive, controlling authority who believes in winning “at all costs”. He has a strong track record as coach, remarking in a speech that “in my thirty years of coaching at West Canaan, I have brought two state titles, and 22 district championships!” His philosophy finally takes its toll on Coyotes’ quarterback, Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), Mox’s best friend and Jules’ brother. Lance is manipulated into taking anesthetic shots into an injured knee that finally succumbs to failure and results in even greater injury during gameplay. He is rushed to the hospital, where doctors are appalled at the massive amount of scar tissue found under his knee.

Mox, who has accompanied Lance to the hospital, is shocked when Kilmer feigns ignorance to Lance’s doctors about Lance’s knee problems, when in fact Kilmer ordered the trainer to inject the shots. In need of a new quarterback, Kilmer reluctantly names Mox to replace Lance as captain and starting quarterback. The move brings unexpected dividends for Mox, one of them being Darcy Sears (Ali Larter), Lance’s beautiful blonde cheerleader girlfriend, who is interested in marrying a football player in order to escape small-town life. She even goes so far as to attempt to seduce Mox, sporting a “bikini” made of whipped cream over her otherwise naked body, but he rebuffs her as gently as he can.

Disgusted with Kilmer and not feeling a strong need to win, Mox starts calling his own plays on the field without Kilmer’s approval. He also chides his father, screaming at him, “I don’t want your life!” The elder Moxon had been a football player at West Caanan, and although Kilmer dismissed him for lacking talent and courage, Moxon still respected and obeyed Kilmer. When Kilmer becomes aware that Mox has won a full scholarship to Brown, Kilmer threatens Mox that if he continues to disobey and disrespect him, the coach will alter Mox’s transcripts in order to reverse the decision on his scholarship.

Kilmer’s lack of concern for players continues, resulting in a dramatic collapse of Billy Bob (Ron Lester). When Wendell Brown (Eliel Swinton), another friend of Mox’s, is injured on the field, Kilmer pressures Brown to take a shot of cortisone to deaden the pain from his injury, allowing him to continue even in the face of a permanent injury. Desperate to be recruited by a good college, Wendell grants his consent. At this moment, Mox tells Kilmer he’ll quit the team if the needle enters Wendell’s knee. Undaunted, he orders Charlie Tweeder (Scott Caan), a friend of both Mox and Wendell, to replace Mox, but Tweeder refuses. Mox tells Kilmer that the only way they will return to the field is without Kilmer. Realizing that he will be forced to forfeit the game, Kilmer loses control and physically assaults Mox. The other players intercede and then refuse to take to the field. Knowing his loss of control has cost him his credibility, Kilmer tries in vain to rally support and spark the team’s spirit into trusting him, but none of the players follow him out of the locker room. He continues down the hall, and seeing no one following him, turns the other direction and into his office. The team goes on to win the game without his guidance.

In a voice-over epilogue, Mox recounts several characters’ aftermaths, including the fact that Kilmer left town and never coached again and that Lance became a successful coach.

REVIEW:

Well, in a few hours the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks will be defending their title against a team that is no stranger to winning the big game themselves, the New England Patriots. I’ve already got the snacks ready to go, so two things have to happen. I need to decide who to cheer for, since I could really care less about these teams and tradition dictates I watch a football movie. A couple of years ago I dug out the Robert Downey, Jr. “classic”,  Johnny Be Good and last year was the George Clooney underrated gem Leatherheads. This year, let’s have us some Texas high school football with Varsity Blues.

What is this about?

When the Coyotes’ star quarterback is injured, second-stringer Jonathan Moxon is thrust into the spotlight. Yet Moxon is more interested in academics.

What did I like?

The stars shine bright. Sometimes a film will put together a group of young talent that, at the time, doesn’t seem to be anything more than young people working together, but some 5,10, 15+ years later, we can look back at these films and wonder at how the cast has gone on to bigger and better things. Ali Larter, Scott Caan, Amy Smart, Paul Walker (may he R.I.P.), and to a lesser extent, James Van Der Beek all have become TV/movie stars and household names since this flick and that ay be its biggest legacy.

Expose a problem. Growing up in the south, one thing has always been clear “Football is life!” It may seem like this flick is an exaggeration of that mantra, but I know a few guys from high school and college who possibly could have gone on to bigger and better things had it not been for injuries and coaches who wanted to ignore said injuries so that they can win another game or two (and maybe get some hardware along the way). This was a problem when I was in school and, while it may not be as big now, I imagine it still is an issue. Hopefully, someone saw this film and it opened their eyes. Stuff like this doesn’t get written without some kind of truth behind the source material.

The Dawson. While all the girls I knew were crazy about Dawson’s Creek, I just skipped on by it, so my extent of James Van Der Beek knowledge is his cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and his character (a parody of himself) in Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (really good, underrated show, btw). I’m impressed to see that Van Der Beek can hold his own with the likes of a heavyweight like Jon Voight. At the time, you would think this guy would have been skyrocketing to superstardom, but something has kept him from that goal, not really sure what, though. At any rate, we can cherish the fact that he give a great performance which mirrors his character, wise and mature beyond his years.

What didn’t I like?

Comparisons. A high school football movie set in Texas where the star player gets injured and the focus shift to the backup who suddenly becomes the “golden boy”. Sound familiar? Well, if you’re familiar with Friday Night Lights, it should. Well, let me take that back. There are similarities to the film, to be sure, but I think this parallels the TV series a bit more closely. I can imagine the comparisons are nonstop and take credibility away from one or the other. Isn’t it a shame that they can’t exist as separate entities that just happen to have the same subject matter. Then again, we are a society that insists on comparing and contrasting everything, I suppose.

Daddy issues. Before Paul Walker’s injury, we are privy to the great relationship he has with his father. At the same time, we also see the tumultuous relationship Van Der Beek’s character has with his dad. What are we to make of this? That’s just it! We don’t know what to make of all this because it is never resolved. At least in the movie version of Friday Night Lights, the daddy issues were resolved. Here, they just seemed to be forgotten, with a slight resurgence before the “big game”.

Race. You would think with a major topic like race, this would be front and center, right? Wrong! There are two ways to look at this. First, the film didn’t want to make a big deal of the race thing, and just casually brought it up because this is a small town in Texas and there is only one African-American player (who actually did play in the NFL for a couple of years). On the other hand, if you didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, then why bring it up at all. All that needed to be said was that the guy wasn’t getting touchdowns because the coach didn’t like him, rather than playing the race card, only to totally ignore it for the rest of the film.

For as a good a film Varsity Blues is, there are two things that overshadow it. The superior Friday Night Lights, which was released 5 or so years later and Ali Larter’s whip cream bikini scene. These things aside, it should be noted that this film is no slouch. It delivers strongly on the levels of late 90s teen drama, throws in some comedy here and there, and the game scenes aren’t bad, either. Personally, I enjoyed this flick and, while it isn’t the best football film out there, I think it is one that more people should check out. In a nutshell, I give this a pretty high recommendation.

4 out of 5 stars

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