Judge William Lee will play with balls of all shapes and sizes. We were talking about sports, right?
The greatest victories are born in the heart.
A talented but reckless young sports star on the path to nowhere meets a legendary coach who challenges him to be his best. What makes this sports story different from all the others? It's the first American movie to feature rugby.
Facts of the Case
Rick Penning (Sean Faris, Never Back Down) is the captain on his high school rugby team in Flagstaff, Arizona. His father Richard (Neal McDonough, Traitor) is the team's cold, demanding coach. After getting drunk and injuring his girlfriend in a car accident, Rick is sent to juvenile detention. Advised that he should change his attitude if he wants a chance at early parole, Rick reluctantly agrees to play for Utah's Highland rugby team. Of course, Highland, led by the legendary Coach Larry Gelwix (Gary Cole, Pineapple Express), and Flagstaff are bitter rivals and Rick's old teammates suspect he's turned traitor.
Take rugby out of Forever Strong and replace it with any other sport and it's essentially the same movie. Actually, chances are good you've seen a variation on this story before. It dutifully moves through the usual sports movie clichés, there are no surprises, yet the reliable formula still works. I rolled my eyes at first, but it wasn't long before I was engaged with classic moments such as: establishing the rebel persona, suffering the setback, re-learning the basics, receiving the pep talk, surviving the tragedy, making the comeback, and winning the big game. Yeah! Hugs all around, boys.
Coach Larry Gelwix is the movie's real life connection to the sport. He's been doing it for over 30 years pushing the philosophy that "it's not about building a championship team, it's about building championship boys." As we see in the movie, he encourages strict personal discipline from his boys: no sex, no drugs, no alcohol. No player will display behavior that will embarrass himself, his team or his family. Though he looks too young for the part, Gary Cole does a good job playing Gelwix as a tall, cool and handsome Yoda figure. You know it's true when he says he believes in Rick's potential.
Looking very much like a young Tom Cruise, but without the ubiquitous smile, Sean Faris is likeable as the hotshot who needs guidance. Rick is a standard protagonist in movies like this but Faris makes him believable. Similarly, Neal McDonough brings enjoyable intensity to his portrayal of the otherwise one-dimensional role of Rick's father.
The story is focused too tightly on the relationship between Rick and his fathers (real and surrogate). Consequently, the world they inhabit feels less like a real place and more like a generic small town America backdrop. The players are supposed to be in high school but the actors look more convincing as college athletes. There are also no scenes of anyone attending school. There doesn't appear to be anything that the characters do besides go to the games.
Coach Gelwix's method might seem unrealistically optimistic to cynical viewers but I was won over by the message that strong moral character makes a strong player. What the movie gets right is that team sport is about the spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood; not about which side has the biggest, strongest goons. You probably won't find your local high school athletic team volunteering at the children's ward at the hospital, but isn't it nice to believe they might?
Forever Strong receives a respectable DVD presentation on this Crane Movie Company release. The picture is clean with some grain in darker scenes but a good amount of sharp detail throughout. There is a deliberate color bias (dusty yellow in Arizona and deeper greens and blues in Utah) that works well for the look of the film. The surround sound mix isn't overly aggressive but it's quite satisfying nonetheless. Dialogue is strong and clear while the environmental effects are effectively positioned.
The extras on the disc reinforce Gelwix as the movie's guiding light. The real life coach actively participated in the making of the film and contributes to a number of featurettes. "Life Lessons From Coach Gelwix" is a 25-minute excerpt from an interview/motivational presentation from the coach. Shades of these lessons are included in the movie's script. He joins director Ryan Little (Saints and Soldiers) for a lively audio commentary. Little shares details about the production's logistics but Gelwix dominates with his recollections of working with the filmmakers to achieve a high level of authenticity. Both of them sound genuinely pleased with the results of their efforts.
There is also an average making-of featurette that runs 22 minutes. The Haka—the Maori chant the Highland players perform before each game—is spotlighted in another segment. A short outtakes reel has some amusing moments. The trailer plus some "Viral Videos" meant to generate interest in the film on the Internet round out the supplements.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers who don't know anything about rugby won't learn much more about it from this film which makes it look like a chaotic version of American football. A lot of craft has been put into depicting the action of the game, its speed and physicality. However, you don't really get a sense of the strategy involved. When Rick is played in a different position than he is used to, we understand that he's unhappy but it isn't clear how that changes his role on the field. As the movie that intends to bring rugby to a wider audience, it comes up short by reducing it to a confusing game of boys slamming their bodies against one another.
Forever Strong plays on very familiar ground with its recycling of sports movie plot elements. Still, for fans of the genre it works because of the cast's strong performances in stereotypical roles and the expert filmmaking that moves the story briskly through standard formula. The exciting action should appeal to young viewers and its wholesome message will put their parents at ease.
Not guilty. Good game, everyone.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Picture Rock Entertainment
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