Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What's on Netflix?: 23 BLAST

Welcome to another installment of What's on Netflix?, where we pick out a film currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's choice is the family-friendly sports drama... 23 BLAST.

There was a time when I enjoyed sports movies very much, though I've never been a sports fan. The reason for this isn't hard to comprehend: sports movies made the subject exciting. Through a combination of the inherently personal nature of narrative and the filmmakers' ability to communicate their love for the subject, sports movies were able to electrify me in a way that the games themselves never could. Even today, some of my favorite movies are sports movies for that very reason.

I use the past tense because this is no longer the case; sports movies are no longer exciting. Whether it's the result of cynicism born out of all the recent strikes, doping scandals and general jackassery on the part of former sports stars over the past two decades, or just another symptom of a deeper issue in our collective psychology, sports movies as a whole have traded action, excitement and fun for Inspiration, with a capitol I. The story is still the same -- the underdog struggles through adversity to achieve a moment of glory -- but there's no joy in the journey. Now it's all about the struggle, as if we're incapable of relating to the underdog of the moment if the story isn't layered with a heavy dose of existential misery.

This is why I actively avoided watching 23 Blast for so long, no matter how often it appeared in my Recommended for You list. A story about a blind football player? Now that has to be some heavy-handed inspirational claptrap, I thought, as I instead went looking for the lighter sports-themed fare of ages past. But then I reflected, as I often do: a story about a blind football player will likely lay on the Inspiration with a shovel, but it's a story about a blind football player! Odds are there's going to be some serious unintentional hilarity in a story like that. I reasoned this way because I am a terrible person.

So I gave it a day in court. 23 Blast is based on the true story of Travis Freeman, a high school football star who lost his sight following an illness, yet overcame his disability to the point that he was able to rejoin his team and finish out the season. Yes, adversity is overcome, yes, Inspiration abounds, and yes, in the grand tradition of sports movies, the movie climaxes with The Big Game, and an ending that will surprise no one. Given that this is a family movie, the story prominently features the three F's: Family, Friends and Faith. When Travis loses his sight, his family and friends rally around him and, with unwavering love and support, help him overcome the obstacles that life has placed in his path. There is absolutely nothing here that you wouldn't expect from a movie of this kind.

And yet. What saves 23 Blast from being just another forgettable ABC Family-caliber love fest is the people involved. When a movie has a cast with chemistry, and a crew who care about the project, then calling attention to that movie's heart and soul will never be an issue: they will be on display for all to see. 23 Blast delivers in this area, especially in the interplay between Travis and his friend Jerry Baker. The friendship between the two is deep without feeling unrealistic, and they won me over almost immediately (the elevator scene was a particular favorite of mine; you'll know it when you see it). The film also doesn't get carried away with its idyllic down-home setting of small town Kentucky. It's a common temptation for movies set in the American Heartland to unrealistically idealize the people who live there. While 23 Blast has its share of small-town stereotypes -- the tough but fair coach who cares about his boys, the wise and devoted parents, the hero's achingly sweet girlfriend -- the movie never lets these tropes run wild to the point where disbelief can no longer be suspended. Though it can be said that the other characters, those on the football team especially, all seem a little too willing to jump on Team Travis, this isn't the worst example of rallying behind the underdog that's ever been committed to film. This isn't, for example, Rudy.

Is 23 Blast enough to bring me around to the current trend of inspirational sports movies? Absolutely not. But in this case, with this movie, I'm glad I took the chance. 23 Blast covers well-worn ground the right way.

Robert's Score: 6/10

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