Wednesday, February 22, 2017


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. Today we look at the 2000 golf drama, THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. The Legend of Bagger Vance is another one of those movies I put off seeing for far too long. At the time it was released, Will Smith was still best known for starring in summer blockbusters and releasing CDs full of raps about how great it was to be Will Smith. I don't know if I would have liked the movie when it was released, but I certainly enjoy it now.

Based on the novel by Steven Pressfield, The Legend of Bagger Vance is the story of Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a former golf legend in early 20th century Savannah, Georgia, who loses his love for the game after his horrifying experiences serving in World War I. Pressured to return to golf after a high-profile exhibition match is declared, Junuh grudgingly agrees. One night, while practicing his drive, Junuh meets a drifter named Bagger Vance (Smith) who offers to caddy for him. Seeing that Vance has some insight into the game of golf, Junuh agrees.

From there, the film settles in to the underdog sports story formula that Hollywood loves so much. I've written here before about the problems I have with the way sports movies have gone in recent years, so I was happy to see that Bagger Vance doesn't follow that route. Junuh's lingering self-doubts, and the pain he carries with him following his return from the war, are present without being constantly shoved in our faces. Maybe this is the film's way of having the characters display that old Southern fortitude. I don't know. All I know is that I'd rather cheer for the underdog than weep for him as he makes his way through the story to the big match at the end.

This film has one of the better supporting casts I've seen. The men of Savannah get some very colorful dialogue, and Charlize Theron is a joy as Adele Invergordon, Junuh's one-time love interest and the organizer of the match. Hollywood has been in a phase (for want of a better word) of wanting to portray women as strong, capable, and intelligent. This is a good thing and a noble goal. Sadly, in my experience, they rarely get it right, which is why I've begun to enjoy Theron's turns as the female lead. Her characters show their strength by actually trying to accomplish goals, rather than simply radiating only lightly-focused anger.

But I watched this movie for Will Smith most of all. He turns in one of his best dramatic performances as Bagger Vance. Bagger has a deep love for the game of golf, and most of the speeches about the game come from him. At first, it is a bit silly that he spends as much time telling Junuh to "find his perfect swing" as he does teaching Junuh anything practical. But, given that Junuh that was once a local hero of a golfer, fundamentals aren't what are needed in this case. Junuh already knows "how" to golf; what Vance is doing is teaching Junuh to move past himself and remember what he's forgotten.

And that brings me to the argument that The Legend of Bagger Vance falls into that category of movies derisively known as "magic negro" pictures. If you follow that link, you'll read that director Spike Lee referenced Bagger Vance specifically when discussing the topic. For the record, I find the whole category debatable, but for the sake of argument I'll entertain the idea as it stands.

I can see how you could be tempted to label Bagger Vance this way. Bagger has plenty of borderline-mystical teachings to convey about zen and the art of golf which help Junuh get his proverbial groove back, and the magic negro as film archetype does exist to show white folks the way to a better life.

That said, I disagree that The Legend of Bagger Vance deserves to be labeled this way by the virtue of its being a sports movie. Many sports movies feature a character who, to a greater or lesser degree, has such an abiding love and understanding of the sport in question that it borders on mysticism. Here's the thing, though: such a character is typically played by a white guy. Reference Mickey, the trainer in the Rocky movies, Mendy Ripstein in 2002's Undisputed, and, to a lesser extent, Coach Gordon Bombay in The Mighty Ducks. The only non-white instance of such a character that I know of (other than Vance) is Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid (the original, thank you very much), and I have to use a broad definition of "sports" to come up with even that. So, in my ever so humble opinion, if Will Smith can be said to be doing anything race-related in The Legend of Bagger Vance at all, I say he's breaking a color barrier.

This is another movie that takes a topic I normally don't care about (golf), and yet still manages to make it enjoyable. I don't know how accurate to real-world golf the movie's philosophies about the game are, but it's as great a story about a golf match as I've seen, and charmingly performed besides.

The Legend of Bagger Vance is rated PG-13 for some sexual content.

Robert's Score: 8/10

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