Judge Michael Rankins prefers rubber duckies to toy boats.
The true story of a legend who left history in his wake.
This umpteenth variation on the Rocky theme, this time with sculling as the theme sport, proves once and for all that there's a reason why many people hate sports movies. Quite simply, it's because too many sports movies stink on ice. Or, in this case, on water.
Facts of the Case
In a later era, Ned Hanlan (a pre-orthodontia Nicolas Cage, Lord Of War) might be described as a one-man Hooters restaurant: delightfully tacky, yet unrefined. But it's the late 19th century, so Ned has the designation all to himself. A ne'er-do-well who spends his days running illegal hooch around Toronto Bay in his beat-up skiff, and his nights playing slap-and-tickle with winsome tavern lass Dulcie (Melody Anderson, Flash Gordon), Ned's claim to local fame is his unparalleled skill at rowing.
When Ned bests the flashy Bill McCoy (David Naughton, wearing a fake mustache that would embarrass An American Werewolf in London) in a match race, the two men become partners: Bill will pull the strings while Ned concentrates on pulling the oars. Before Ned's first world-class race in Philadelphia, a third partner joins the team—Walter Brown (Sean Sullivan, 2001: A Space Odyssey), a master boatwright who has invented a seat that slides on rollers inside the scull, enabling the rower to pull with faster, smoother strokes.
Ned's success draws the attention of a gambling syndicate headed by the oily Colonel Knox (Christopher Plummer, The Sound Of Music). To entice the bankable young oarsman into his clutches, Knox aims his comely, high-born niece, Maggie Sutherland (Cynthia Dale, who followed Cage to Moonstruck), at Ned to worm her way into his unsuspecting heart.
With Ned having outrowed all comers in North America, the stage is set for The Boy In Blue (so dubbed because of his baby blue rowing outfit) to face his greatest rival, arrogant Australian oarsman Edward Trickett (Robert McCormick), for the world sculling championship on jolly old England's River Thames.
If ever there was an "underdog who becomes a champion" sports flick that deserved to drive a stake through the heart of this shopworn genre, The Boy In Blue is that flick. Unoriginal, uninspired, and utterly suspense-free, this limp throwaway of a movie wouldn't even make a decent Movie of the Week on an all-sports cable channel.
Nothing in the film succeeds, starting with the cast. Nicolas Cage turns in another of the cheerfully goofball performances he specialized in early in his career before he found his stride as an actor. Despite his chiseled physique—which director Charles Jarrott exploits at every sweat-glazed opportunity—Cage never convinces us that he is a top-flight athlete, or living in the 1870s, or Canadian. Callow David Naughton is woefully miscast as Ned's manager and best friend—his hit-or-miss Canuck accent is marginally more consistent than Cage's, but that's faint praise. Naughton looks and sounds like a modern-day frat boy in period drag. Cynthia Dale and Melody "Dale Arden" Anderson may well be the two most pallid, least interesting girlfriend types ever cast together in a major motion picture. (The film's R rating is entirely attributable to these two actresses each sharing a regrettably silly sex scene with Cage.) Christopher Plummer phones in yet another of his stereotypical smug villains. I wanted to reach through the screen and put my hand over his mouth, in case he yawned.
Meanwhile, behind the camera, director Jarrott serves up writer Douglas Bowie's tepid script with all the flair of a man who has labored for decades as a maker of industrial training films. Anyone who has every seen rowing live, or on television during the Summer Olympics, knows what an exciting, dramatic sport it can be at its best. Jarrott invests his film with none of that excitement and drama, being content to simply record the events in dogged, workmanlike fashion. None of Ned's races are set up with sufficient intensity or intrigue that we sense anything monumental is about to occur. None of the racing footage conveys any sense that the people involved are doing anything more notable than taking a leisurely afternoon cruise. None of the interactive scenes rises above the level of daytime soap opera. If Ned Hanlan's life behind the oars really was this boring, it's a miracle that anyone ever wagered a dollar on him.
Hardly content to simply be tiresome, The Boy In Blue vaults its way into aural annoyance by way of Roger Webb's aggressively clichéd, hellishly obnoxious, ludicrously anachronistic synthesizer-and-brass-laden score. Imagine a screechy mishmash of every awful film soundtrack you remember from bad genre films from the 1980s, and here you have it.
Overall, the production has the cheap, disposable feel of a TV movie. Not surprising, since it was coproduced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. That's a reason, perhaps, but not an excuse, especially in a picture made with name personnel for theatrical release.
Perhaps realizing that they have a turkey on their hands, Fox Home Video wastes precious little resources on its DVD release of The Boy In Blue. The anamorphic transfer on this two-sided disc (a full-frame version also appears, in case you desperately crave the true cheesy telefilm experience) displays brilliant, natural color against flaccid definition, with repeated but minor streaks, specks, and other source print artifacts. Both the stereo and mono soundtracks deliver an acceptably clear, if tinny and occasionally harsh, audio quality. It's a thoroughly average presentation on both ends.
Although based on the exploits of a true-life sports hero, The Boy In Blue gives us nary an extra to flesh out the story of the man inside the turquoise togs. Judging by the quality of the disc's lone extra—a grimy, grainy theatrical trailer that looks as though Nicolas Cage stored it in his basement with his comic book collection for the past 20 years—perhaps it's just as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, Edward "Ned" Hanlan really existed. The greatest oarsman of his generation, Hanlan won all but six of the 300-odd races that marked his professional career, and he held the world rowing championship for the better part of a decade.
That's about all I know about the man, other than the fact that his life probably merited a better movie.
If you believed no one could make a worse rowing movie than Oxford Blues, The Boy In Blue will quickly disabuse you of that misperception. You'll be blue yourself if you blow your looneys on this Roy Hobbs wannabe. For Nicolas Cage completists, diehard sculling fanatics, and jingoistic Canadians only.
The Boy In Blue is found guilty of impersonating a worthwhile sports film, and is sentenced to a long night by a campfire singing rounds of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with William Shatner. We're adjourned.
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