By Bill Simmons
Here's one of my guilty pleasures in life: I love movie ads that carry quotes from the Joel Siegels and Earl Dittmans of the world, breathless stuff like "Keanu Reeves has never been better!" or "Ashton Kutcher will have you rolling in the aisles!"
For one thing, they're funny as hell. They also bring back memories of the late, great Spy Magazine in the '80s, when Spy's fake movie critic, Walter Monheit, wrote one-line monthly reviews like, "After his performance in Rocky 5, Sly Stallone deserves to go another 15 rounds ... with Oscar!" Those always killed me. I could never take movie blurbs seriously after that. So when Remember the Titans was released in 1999, I remember giggling in glee when somebody called it "The Hoosiers of football films!"
|SPORTS GUY AT THE MOVIES|
|In his first installment, but not in any particular order, Bill Simmons tackled "Varsity Blues," which ranked No. 30 on his list of the "72 Best Sports Movies Of The Past 33 Years." At No. 55, "Remember The Titans" is the second movie that the Sports Guy has reviewed in his countdown.|
And then I said, "Wait a second ..."
The Hoosiers of football films???? Even if there was a 0.009% chance that "Titans" would reach the same hallowed ground as Hoosiers, it was worth the eight bucks to find out. You can guess what happened. After Titans ended, I stormed out of the theater and sucker-punched the nearest usher. What a debacle.
Five years have passed since then. I've caught pieces of Titans on cable. Not a terrible movie. Then again, it's not Hoosiers. Some day I will get over this.
Just not now.
In case you blocked it out of your mind, "Titans" was "based on a true story" about a 1971 Virginia high school team that banded together during forced integration. In other words, the white school and the black school were thrown together, everyone hated each other, nobody was happy about it ... but dammit, there were some football games to win. And yes, any time you hear the words "based on a true story," that's usually a translation for "We bought the rights to this story, took out the boring parts, then made up just about everything else."
(By the way, the first line of the movie? A little girl narrating the line, "In Virginia, football is a way of life." Remember in "Varsity Blues," when Mox led off the movie by narrating, "In West Canaan, football is a way of life"? Exactly. Let's just agree from now on that football is a way of life. Doesn't matter where you live. Good.)
The white team was originally led by Coach Yoast, played by Will Patton, a 1996 inductee into the That Guy Hall of Fame. You know him as That Guy who shot himself at the end of "No Way Out." He's also a charter member of the John Cusack/Jeremy Piven Memorial "I Have More Hair Now Than I Did 12 years Ago" Hall of Fame. And in the movie, Yoast is angling to get named to the Virginia Football Hall of Fame. There must be a lot of Halls of Fame. Anyway, once forced integration passes, Coach Yoast gets demoted to assistant coach, for two reasons:
1. The school board wants a black football coach.
2. Denzel Washington is the star of the movie, not Will Patton.
So, Denzel takes over to the dismay of everyone in town. Shades of "Hoosiers"? Absolutely. We even have grumbling players and a hastily-called town meeting to boycott the season. They should have gone the whole nine yards and had a mercurial quarterback (Johnny Shiftwood?) tossing 40-yard timing patterns to himself in his backyard. That doesn't stop Denzel, who spends the first part of the movie barking out orders, healing racial wounds and uniting his team, a cross between Bill Parcells, Norman Dale and Martin Luther King Jr. If you're looking for lines like "This is not a democracy. This is a dictatorship. ... I am the law!", you've come to the right place.
There's a promising subplot involving two defensive stars -- one white (Gary), one black (Julius) -- as they butt heads and begrudgingly become buddies, capped off by a legitimate Chill Scene when they're congratulating one another after a good play in practice (maybe a 5.8 on the Goosebump Scale). They also lucked out because the guy who played Gary (Ryan Hurst) gives the best performance in the entire movie, and that includes Denzel. He's great. Not sure what happened to him after this movie; he seemed destined for bigger and better things.
(Speaking of bigger and better things, that's Kate Bosworth playing Gary's girlfriend in a a sports movie first -- the Racist Token Wet Blanket Girlfriend Who Still Manages To Look Hot In Every Scene. We might never see that happen again in our lifetimes. Five years later, I'm still confused. Even though she was heinous and closed-minded, was it all right to be attracted to her? Did that make ME a racist? Very confusing. I'm getting winded just thinking about this.)
Anyway, once the team starts coming together, the movie starts falling apart. You feel the wheels wobbling when Denzel takes the team on a morning run to Gettysburg, then gives a Three-Cringer as he ties the battle of Gettysburg with the team's personality struggles. (What's a Three-Cringer, you ask? It's when you cringe three times during the same scene. Not Denzel's finest hour. To my knowledge, the only Five-Cringer in sports movie history was the entire ending of "A League of Their Own," but I could be wrong.) That's followed by the wheels officially coming off with the "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" debacle (more on this in a second).
When the team heads back to school to start the season, the movie derails faster than a Derek Lowe start. Here were the problems, in order ...
1. Too many plots happening at once
As we mentioned before, the rivalry-turned-friendship between Julius and Gary inadvertently becomes the heart of the movie, only because none of the other storylines are all that interesting. So when Gary gets paralyzed in a car accident near the end of the film -- major bummer, by the way -- they give us the old "Lump in the Throat" moment (Julius visiting him in the hospital for the requisite "I love you man" scene) ... then BOOM! We're off to the next game, with Gary cheering the team from his hospital bed like a paraplegic Shooter. Come on. Don't ask me to become attached to these characters, then wrap stories up in tidy two-minute scenes. It's insulting.
Here's another example - the relationship between Coach Yoast and Coach Denzel. Over the course of two hours, they have 350 exchanges exactly like this one:
-- Yoast: "What are you doing, Coach?"
-- Denzel: "You just worry about your defense, and I'll worry about my offense."
Actually, that's not fair. Sometimes they have exchanges like this:
-- Denzel: "What are you doing, Coach?"
-- Yoast: "You just worry about your offense, and I'll worry about my defense."
Here's the point: They never connect on any level. Friends? Enemies? Rivals? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine. Couldn't they have given us one scene where Denzel agonized about coaching the title game, and Yoast pulled a Wilford Brimley and said, "I know we've had our differences, but you're the best offensive coach I've known ... and you're the best g--damned motivator I've ever seen. Go get your whistle." Something like that? Would that have been too much?
That's what makes the ending so inexplicable: After the Titans win the state championship on a miracle play, we see the players celebrating, and Yoast and Denzel catch each other's eye, leading to this exchange:
-- Yoast (rushing his lines because we're at the two-hour mark): "I know football, what you did with these boys, you were the right man for the job."
-- Denzel (quickly, without even thinking about what Yoast just said): "You're a Hall of Famer in my book."
And ... scene.
Where did that come from? I even checked the deleted scenes on the DVD this week, assuming this exchange was set up by an earlier scene that didn't make the final cut. Nope. You figure it out.
Along those same lines ...
2. Denzel's Coach Boone was a cartoon character
Unlike Hackman in Hoosiers, Russell in Miracle or even the guy who played Coach Fenstock in Teen Wolf, there isn't one moment in "Titans" where you say to yourself, "Hey, this guy seems like a real person." Even when he throws up before the first game, it almost feels like one of the producers told the writers, "Hey, this guy doesn't feel real enough, make him puke before the big game."
In retrospect, maybe the problem was Denzel. He's a magnetic screen presence, and he delivers the goods just about every time. I will grant you these two things. With that said, I'm about to change your opinion of Denzel for the rest of eternity. Because Denzel Washington plays the same guy in every movie. You know who that guy is?
It's Denzel Washington!!!!
Think about it. "Malcolm X" ... "He Got Game" ... "Philadelphia" ... "Crimson Tide" ... "Mo Better Blues" ... "The Hurricane" ... "Machurian Candidate." Doesn't matter. He's always just Denzel. He might change his appearance or accent from movie to movie, but that's about it -- with the obvious exception of "Training Day" -- which makes him no different than Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller, Harrison Ford or anyone else. As long as they remain engaging and charismatic, we don't care what situation they're in. That's why the "Pelican Brief" always ropes me in -- I keep waiting for Julia and Denzel to scrap their characters halfway through the movie and start referring to each other by their real names. They should add an audio bonus feature on the "Pelican Brief" DVD where this actually happens.
Maybe I'm Denzel-ed out. Every time I stumble across "Titans" when I'm in SLANFARE mode, I keep waiting for him to accidentally mutter a line from another movie, like "We don't leeeee-ive in this courtroom, now do we, Your Honor?" or "I taught you everything you know, son!" Now that would have been funny.
3. Taking the easy way out with the racial stuff
You can almost imagine the writers sitting around having exchanges like this:
Writer No. 1: "OK, we need a scene that shows the white guys and black guys on the team are starting to get along. Any ideas?
Writer No. 2: "What if we have the Token Fat White Guy singing 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' with all the black guys?"
Writer No. 1: "Fantastic! They'll never see this coming!"
I'm telling you, if I have to sit through another movie where a mismatched group of characters sing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" together, I'm bludgeoning an usher with my 128-ounce Mountain Dew on the way out of the theater. Why couldn't they come up with more scenes like the one where Sunshine (likably played by Kip Pardue, two years before his career-ending performance in "Driven") drags two of his black teammates into a restaurant to buy them dinner? Of course, the manager won't serve them. The three guys end up rejoining their teammates, the whites going one way, the blacks heading in another direction. Subtle and effective. About 10 more scenes like this, and we might have had something.
4. The Bruckheimer Syndrome
Please hear me out on this ...
It's a sports movie. We don't need slo-mo reaction shots, pounding cuts, quick edits, cartoon characters, easily resolved plots, ear-splitting music, far-fetched endings ... save this crap for dopey action movies like Bad Boys 2 and Con Air. Sports movies need a leisurely pace so the game scenes stand out. This is NOT up for debate. I mean, can you imagine if The Natural had been produced by Bruckenheimer? Yikes.
5. The precocious little daughter
You know a character isn't working when people are saying things in the theater like "I hope she gets run over by the team bus" and "Ten years from now, she'll be sleeping with every guy on the team to get back at her dad." OK, that was just me. But still. If you're relying on a 9-year-old for comic relief, you're in deep doggy doo-doo.
Production Value: C-minus
Sports Scenes: D
Chill Scenes (3): D-plus
Climactic Game Scene: D-minus
Final Scene: D
DVD Extras: C-plus
Intentional Comedy: C-plus
Unintentional Comedy: D-minus
Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: D-minus (The "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" scene)
Overall Implausibility: B-minus
Dated-ness: Does not apply
Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: F
Lead Actor/Coach: B
Supporting cast: B
Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: A-minus
Token Fat Guy: C-plus
Token Angry Black Guy(s): B-plus
That Guy Factor: B
Defining Quote: C ("You just worry about your defense, and I'll worry about my offense.")
If you've seen the movie, you won't be surprised to learn that "Titans" was directed by Boaz Yakin, whose writing credits include "Fresh," "From Dusk to Dawn 2" and "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," as well as directing credits for the following movies: "Fresh," "A Price Above Rubies," and "Uptown Girls."
Why did I bother to look this up? Because I could tell that "Titans" was directed by somebody who didn't have a sports background. Every football sequence was filmed WAAAAAAAAY too close; it's like we're stuck watching through an expensive Ump Cam. I could watch the Allies score that first goal in "Victory" 100,000 times over the next 50 years, but I wouldn't watch any of the football scenes from "Titans" again -- with the possible exception of the scene where Sunshine comes off the bench and pulls a Don Strock. Without quality sports scenes, you lose the Rewatchability Factor, meaning that -- for the next 50 years -- we're stuck on cable with a Jerry Bruckenheimer movie about racial strife. Read that last sentence again.
7. The ending
Maybe it isn't the worst ending in sports movie history, but it probably cracks the top-five. In case you blocked it out of your mind, here's what happens:
With 20 seconds left, the Titans are down by four without the ball. We know this because there's a TV crew broadcasting the game live. I'm sure this happened all the time with Virginia high school football in the early-'70s. Anyway, instead of taking a knee and just winning the game, the other team runs a play where the back breaks through the line, then runs straight ahead for the game-clinching TD, refusing to protect the ball or glance either way. As an added bonus, he's running straight ahead and looking goofier than Ashton Kutcher at the end of the "Butterfly Effect." Julius comes from behind and knocks the ball loose. Titans ball.
Now there's only time for one more play ... and the Titans are on their own 25. Thank God this is a movie. Denzel spreads the field and calls a double reverse with Sunshine the QB as the lead blocker, which works because the opposing coach decides not to call a prevent defense (he's the illegitimate brother of the coach from South Bend High). And the Titans get the miracle TD for the state championship. Again, a 75-yard double reverse as time expires.
For whatever reason, they forgot to have the paralyzed player climb out of his bed and hug the nurses while screaming "I can walk! I can walk!"
8. No suck-in-ability
I know, I know... sounds like a word Jay Bilas would come up with. But on my first viewing in the theater, I couldn't get sucked in. I just couldn't. I've seen so many sports movies so many hundreds of times that, when something simple like Titans comes along, I end up sitting in my seat, smirking to myself and ripping everything to shreds.
Hey, there's the token fat guy for comedic relief! Hey, what are the odds that the white star and the black star will end up becoming friends? Hey, I wonder if the black QB will somehow get hurt (a la the Irish goalie in "Victory") so the good-looking blonde guy can take over the team? Hey, we're almost due for another dopey musical montage sequence, aren't we?
Yup, it has all been done. So if you're making a sports movie these days, you can go one of three ways:
I'm not saying "Titans" was a failure -- not only did it make money, but it's one of the few sports movies you can watch with your kids. Fortunately, I don't have any kids yet, so I don't have to watch it again for at least eight years. If you were stuck in a summer house with your extended family for an entire week, and you needed something to watch because it was pouring rain outside ... yeah. This might get the job done. But no movie with this many flaws can crack my Top 50. That's why I'm sticking it at No. 55.
So here's my carefully-crafted blurb in case they feel like adding it to the "Collector's Edition DVD" some day.
- "CARTOON CHARACTERS AND LAME SPORTS SCENES MAR A MOVIE THAT COULD HAVE BEEN A CONTENDER!"
--Bill Simmons, ESPN.com
(Actually, they'll never stick that on a DVD. Shoot. Gimme a second ...)
(I got it!)
- "FORGET ABOUT REMEMBERING THE TITANS ... JUST REMEMBER TO PICK UP THIS DVD!"
--Bill Simmons, ESPN.com
(Sorry, I've always wanted to be on one of those things.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.