First Look Pictures // 2003 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // April 1st, 2005
Feel the passion of the balls.
Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London) is a slovenly young Englishman with a passion for lawn bowling. He finagles his way into a tournament at his grandfather's bowls club and quickly defeats all his opponents, including Ray Speight (James Cromwell, The Green Mile), the club's longtime champion. A technicality forces Cliff to relinquish his trophy, but his wild ways and over-the-top antics catch the eye of Rick Schwartz (Vince Vaughn, Old School), an American sports agent, and Cliff soon finds himself with endorsement deals, a legion of fans, and his own weekly television show. Success goes to his head, and he ends up alienating his family and friends, but he's given a chance to redeem himself in a way he never could have anticipated: Cliff is asked to join forces with Speight in a match against the Australian bowls champions.
These slobs-versus-snobs movies are as old as the medium of film itself, and while Blackball doesn't go out of its way (or even attempt, really) to break new ground, it is fitfully amusing. Unfortunately, it's also a little too laid back and low key for its own good (it is English after all), and it stretches its thin premise a little too far and goes on 10 or 15 minutes longer than is necessary. It starts off fine, begins to drag a little during the second act (when Cliff turns into an egocentric jerk), but picks up again for the finale, although the climax itself is also a bit too protracted (it pretty much rips off the wobbly ball bit from the end of Caddyshack and then runs on for another 10 minutes). For a film following such a tried-and-true formula, as well as one with such a forgone conclusion, there's really no need for it to meander or drag on for so long. A little tightening here and there and a bit of a swifter pace might have turned what is ultimately a passable time-waster into an okay diversion.
While I have some problems with the story and the pacing, I do have to give it up for the cast. For what it's worth, they all turn in pretty good work, especially the always dependable James Cromwell and a manic Vince Vaughn. Vaughn's easily the most energetic thing about the film (he is an American fish in a primarily British pond, after all); in fact, he's so wired that at certain points I started to wonder if maybe he hadn't wandered onto the wrong set, and I mean that in a good way.
The audio/video end of this disc is a bit underwhelming. The transfer is rather dingy and dull, especially in outdoor scenes. Low-budget British comedy or not, it's also grainier and noisier than I was expecting. The 5.1 Dolby mix is quite punchy, with nice channel separation and, surprisingly enough, a good bit of booming bass activity. It can, however, be a little too punchy, with some (rather loud) effects slamming from the front of the soundstage into the rear; this can be effective, but here it sometimes verges on overkill. Extras include brief interviews with director Mel Smith (who also helmed the George Lucas-produced bomb Radioland Murders) and four members of the cast; lumped together, these interviews run less than five minutes, and nothing of any real import is conveyed, other than the fact that this story is (very loosely) based on actual events. You also get limited filmographies for the interviewees, as well as a handful of previews.
I mentioned earlier that Blackball doesn't break any new ground, but that's only partially true. The film is actually notable for one thing: It was released to DVD in the U.S. four days after its stateside theatrical run began. (Feel free to interpret that however you'd like.) One more thing: See those two blondes in the cover photo? They're nowhere to be found in the movie. I call that false advertising. (There's an even better photo on the back cover. If you run across this on a store shelf, pick it up and take a look. You can thank me later.)
I'd have a hard time giving Blackball an outright recommendation. It's not really the kind of thing you'd want to make an effort to see, but if at some point you run across it on television, you might want to give it a shot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director and Cast Interviews
* Official Site