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Thursday, August 5, 2004
Updated: May 31, 2:23 PM ET
Sports Guy's Top Sports Movies: No. 30

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Some people remember where they were during the Kennedy assassination, or the Challenger explosion, or when Larry Holmes drop-kicked Trevor Berbick. I remember where I was during the premiere of ESPN25's "Top 25 Sports Movies" show. Watching them count down movies like "Cobb," "Finding Forrester" and "Hurricane," waiting for classics like "Vision Quest" and "Victory" that never came, I felt a little like Thurman Thomas on draft day -- miffed, angry, hostile and, finally, homicidal.

AN INTRODUCTION
A quick introduction to my "72 Best Sports Movies In The Past 33 Years" Package:

1. We're not counting down the Top 72 in order. You could see No. 30 one week, No. 55 the next, then No. 12 the next. There's no rhyme or reason for when columns will be posted. None.

2. There was no voting panel, no other opinions solicited, nothing. I'm relying on three decades of experience here. You're in good hands.

3. Movies were evaluated for the following things, in no particular order: Quality of the movie; quality of the sports scenes; realism of the sports scenes; realism in general; sheer entertainment value; re-watchability; dated-ness of the movie; star power; originality; typical sports movies; Chill Scenes; defining scenes; intentional comedy; unintentional comedy; and effect on the genre in general.

4. Three ground rules: A.) Without a Chill Scene, you can't crack the Top 50; B.) Unless you're re-watchable, you can't crack the Top 50; and C.) If you could also qualify as a Chick Flick, you can't crack the Top 20.

5. For it to qualify as a sports movie, sports needs to be a consistent and recurring theme. Also, anything featuring a competition qualifies as a sports movie, whether it's poker, ice skating, chess, running, cycling or whatever.

6. "Rocky V," "Caddyshack II" and "Bad News Bears III" never happened, making them ineligible for the "Top 72."

Well, I'm doing something about it. I'm tired of watching other people make crappy lists about sports movies. I've had it. I'm tired of seeing national magazines and even the collective staff of Page 2 pick "Bull Durham" -- a chick flick, by the way -- as the greatest sports movie of all-time. I can't believe people don't know about the "Jericho Mile." I'm stunned that Cadwallader State isn't a household name, or that fans don't talk about Henry Steele's explosion at the end of "One on One" the same way we remember Reggie's consecutive 3-pointers at MSG.

For the next few weeks, months and possibly years, I will be counting down the best 72 sports movies of the past 33 years right here on Page 2. Why 72? I don't know. Seemed like a good number. Why 33? Because that sounded like a good time frame. You know what else? I'm not even doing this in order. This isn't about counting things down or relying on gimmicks as a crutch. This is an homage to the greatest 72 sports movies of my lifetime.

So that's my intro. Let's tackle our first movie ...

No. 30: Varsity Blues

Certain things age like a fine wine. Like the '84 NBA Finals. Jaclyn Smith. "Catcher in the Rye." "Saturday Night Fever." "Battle of the Network Stars" re-runs. And, of course, fine wine.

Five years ago, when I walked out of the theater after seeing "Varsity Blues," I never imagined the movie would qualify for "Fine Wine" status some day. Hey, I'm not saying I didn't get my $7.50 worth at the time.

Any time you're giving me 90 action-packed minutes filled with football, parties, strip clubs, whipped cream bikinis, drunken carousing, a lively soundtrack, and the guy from "Dawson's Creek" mangling a Texas accent ... well, you had me at hello. I liked the movie just fine.

And yet, as the years pass, the following mathematical equation ...

("Friday Night Lights" + "All the Right Moves") x (MTV + Cinemax) = Good Times

... is starting to look like something Einstein came up with.

Is there a more underrated SLANFARE (the acronym for "surfing late at night for anything remotely entertaining") cable movie than "Varsity Blues"? You have Dawson himself (the immortal James Van Der Beek) actually headlining a big-budget movie, which won't happen again unless he commits a double murder and someone makes a documentary about it. You have Paul Walker, Amy Smart AND Ali Larter in breakout roles -- not exactly DeNiro, Caan and Duvall in "The Godfather," but still. And did I mention football, strip clubs, whipped cream bikinis and Dawson mangling a Texas accent?

MORE SPORTS FLICKS
If you can't get enough sports movies, check out Page 2's rankings of the 20 best sports films ever.

You'll also want to check out Bill Simmons' ode to "Hoosiers" and his epic column on the "Karate Kid" trilogy. Then there's Simmons' take on what makes a bad sports movie.

Dawson plays Jonathan "Mox" Moxon, a cerebral senior stuck in a hick Texas town that revolves around high school football. As he says in the cheesy beginning (and yes, he's narrating, always a red flag in a movie, but in this case, not a total murder), "In West Canaan, football is a way of life." He plays for West Canaan High, a perennial powerhouse coached by the legendary Bud Kilmer, played by "The Champ" himself, Jon Voight (back when he was making 20 movies a year so people would stop calling him "Angelina Jolie's Dad").

In Voight's capable hands, Kilmer turns into an over-the-top combination of the coaches from "One on One," "North Dallas Forty" and every other evil coach in sports movie history. When we first see him at a pep rally, he actually quiets the crowd with one of those Hitler "raised palm" salutes. You know where you stand with him right away.

As for Dawson, he's 10 years older than anyone else on the team, he has a receding hairline, and there's no way they could have found a helmet that fits his Leno-like noggin in real life. Regardless, he's the backup for superstar QB Lance Harbor -- played by Walker, still about three years away from ripping off Keanu Reeves's career with the "Fast and the Furious" series.

When we first meet Harbor, the other guys are picking him up before a game. There's a huge billboard in front of the house that shows his picture with the caption "Home of Lance Harbor, All-State Quarterback." And as soon as the handsome Harbor steps out in slow motion, the countdown begins for his career-ending injury. I mean, you just KNOW something bad is going to happen to this guy.

Varsity Blues
"Varsity Blues" is No. 30 on the Sports Guy's list.
Just to complicate things, Mox is dating Lance's sister, Jules (played by Smart), who's cute in an "I'm dating the backup QB" kinda way. In other words, she has small breasts. And by the way, if you're looking for the Token Wet Blanket Girlfriend in this baby ... call off the search. We've found her. Mox doesn't care because he's only the backup QB; besides, he's MORE than a backup QB. He likes to read Vonnegut during games and stuff. And Jules seems relatively intelligent for somebody from Texas, so there's hope for the relationship if they move somewhere where people have actual lives.

(Note: Mox dreams of attending Brown University on an academic scholarship. Why Brown? We're not sure. In fact, it's never addressed in the movie. Maybe he heard that JFK Jr. went there. More importantly, how in the heck could a hick like Mox pull off an academic scholarship to an Ivy League school, especially when he doesn't do homework once during the course of a 105-minute movie? This is the point where the pilot turns on the "Sit back, relax and stop asking questions because you're only going to drive yourself crazy" sign.)

The important thing here is that Mox is smart. We know this because Van Der Beek played Dawson on "Dawson's Creek," and Dawson was smart, if only because he was 10 years older than everyone else on that show, too. I'm not saying Van Der Beek is a bad actor; he's pretty good in this movie, all things considered. But he's like Neve Campbell, Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf, Jason Priestley, Ian Ziering, the guy who played Dr. Michael Mancini or any other '90s TV actor who's tried to cross over to the big screen -- it doesn't matter who they play, which accent they use, what they do to their hair ... we aren't accepting them as anything other than their hit character from their hit TV show. Not for a second. And that's that.

(The exception here, of course, is the guy who played Justin on "Party of Five," one of the best TV characters of that decade: Smart, funny, played by an actor who could actually act. He carried Neve Campbell for like four years, and she made Mischa Barton look like Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, the guy who played Justin parlayed the role into a part in "Leaving Las Vegas," playing one of the college kids who gang-rapes Elisabeth Shue. Honestly, it was the most shocking movie cameo of all time. I'm convinced that's why they made him leave the show. And yet, I digress ... )

**************

Back to the plot ... early on, six things are established:

  • Lance Harbor is going to get horribly injured. We don't know how or when; we just know it's happening. Personally, I was rooting for a car accident where he would get disfigured like Tom Cruise in "Vanilla Sky."

    Mox & Coach Kilmer
    Mox and his Coach Kilmer just couldn't get along.
  • Coach Kilmer is so evil, he makes Kate Winslet's fiancee from "Titanic" look like the Liberian soccer player who won the ESPY this summer. We see him pushing the trainers to shoot up Lance's knee with painkillers, we see him pushing Mox's buddy Billy Bob (token fat guy alert!) to play with a concussion ... this guy is an "Outside the Lines" show waiting to happen.

  • Kilmer and Mox don't like each other. You know, the whole "Maybe you should spend a little less time reading Vonnegut and a little more time reading our playbook" thing.

  • Not only is Lance's hot cheerleader girlfriend willing to have sex with him on a washer-dryer, she says things like "Let's turn it on and let the machine do the work."

  • Mox has to deal with his dad, a former West Canaan star who lives life vicariously through his son. I actually like this character, and not just because his wispy mustache made him look like Ed Werder. How many pathetic high school football dads are there spread across the country like this one? Twenty thousand? Fifty thousand? How has Chris Guest not made a sports movie mockumentary yet about Little League parents or High School Football parents? This is amazing to me.

  • Mox's buddy Tweeder isn't just James Caan's son in real life. He isn't just West Canaan's star wide receiver. He's also the coolest guy on the team, the resident party animal, and probably the key to any future scenes involving nudity, drinking, and/or strip clubs in this movie.

    Anyway, Lance goes down with his inevitable knee injury, which happens because Billy Bob (token fat guy alert!) misses his block with his head ringing from the aforementioned concussion. Mox comes in like Frank Reich and wins the game in the final minutes (enjoyable sequence, by the way, including our first Chill Scene), setting up his improbable, Warner-like run. Since Harbor's injury was the Coach's fault -- neither Billy Bob nor Lance should have been out there -- that sets up the interesting theme of "Winning at all costs at the high school level," which would have been more interesting if it hadn't been done 30 times already.

    RIPPED OFF
    Just for fun, here they are, the themes "Blues" ripped off from other sports movies:

    1. The hateful, domineering coach who deserves to be pummeled to death by one of his players ("One on One," "Hoop Dreams," "North Dallas Forty").

    2. High school football is all this town has ("All the Right Moves").

    3. High school football sure can get crazy ("Johnny Be Good").

    4. The Texas football scene sure is rowdy and quirky ("Necessary Roughness").

    5. When you try to win at all costs, there's always a price ("Hoop Dreams," "Blue Chips").

    6. Few things are more pathetic than family members living their lives through other family members ("Hoop Dreams," "Reckless," "Youngblood," "All the Right Moves").

    7. The kid with everything going for him who needs to be crippled to prove that sports isn't just fun and games ("The Program").

    In fact, "Blues" borrows heavily from various themes in sports movies and TV shows over the past three decades. (See sidebar at right.) Five blatant ripoffs stand out over everything else.

  • Tweeder's character, just a shameless rip-off of Mac Davis' QB in "North Dallas Forty" (right down to their height -- both of them are about 5-foot-5, soaking-wet).

  • Smart playing the Token Wet Blanket Girlfriend (okay, that's every sports movie).

  • The team heading to a strip joint and seeing one of their teachers come on stage, lifted directly from "The White Shadow" (although in this case, she ends up getting drunk with the players, which would have been the most improbable scene in the history of cinema if it wasn't for Van Damme playing goalie in "Sudden Death").

  • Mox's speech at halftime of the big game, which has him saying everything short of "For Granny, for Nate ... for Caretaker. Let's do it." And then they follow that one with the Slow Clap from "Hoosiers," leading to the rarest of rare sports movie moments -- the Double Rip-off!

  • The Token Hot Blonde Chick throwing herself at the up-and-coming star. (Mox, meet "Teen Wolf.")

    Hey, don't get me wrong. None of these things is bad. In fact, the Token Hot Blonde Chick theft from the previous paragraph? That leads to a scene where the THBC (played by Larter in a "Magic Johnson in Game 6 of the '80 Finals"-level rookie performance) gets undressed in his car, then coos things like "You don't always have to do the right thing, Mox." She also lures him over to her house and makes him a hot fudge sundae ... which basically involves her covering her body in whipped cream. Um ... where can I place my order? Can I get that to go?

    (Just for the record, I would have wagered everything I owned at the time -- which was probably about 60 DVDs, some Celtics ticket stubs and $2,700 in the bank -- that Ali Larter would be parlaying that whipped cream sundae into big things. And yet it didn't happen. There's no rational explanation for this. Like with Heather Graham, post-Rollergirl ... I mean, we know poor Heather can't act. We know this now. But what happened with Ali Larter? At the very worst, she should've become the next Kelly Preston, right? Perplexing.)

    You remember what happens from there. We find out that star quarterbacks in Texas get free beer at convenience stores, and star wide receivers can steal police cars with no repercussions. Dawson emerges as a star and deals with the additional burdens of stardom in a small town. Can he avoid getting caught up in the "Big Man On Campus" thing? Will he backstab Lance and make a play for the cheerleader, or will he stick with the semi-smart chick with no breasts? Can West Canaan win the district championship? And most importantly, how will the writers incorporate key themes like drinking, sex, puking, stripping, and carousing into the mix without compromising the overall integrity of the film?

    (Don't worry ... mission accomplished).

    ******************

    Mox & girls
    Mox had his options in the female department.
    There's also one classic scene that ranks at least a 95 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale, maybe the defining scene of the movie. It makes me laugh every time. It also explains why "Varsity Blues" is innately re-watchable. Just look at this baby.

    [INT -- THE KITCHEN AT DAWSON'S HOUSE. DAYTIME]

    Dawson's Dad is eating breakfast at the kitchen table. He seems unhappy. Dawson enters the room looking for Rogaine. He ends up over by the fridge, drinking orange juice from the bottle.

    DAD: People are saying you organized an all-night drinking party. That's why you boys dragged ass out there.

    DAWSON (voice quivering): Save it, Dad.

    [DAD JUMPS UP. HIS VOICE RAISES]

    DAD: Save it? Save what? You got the opportunity of a lifetime, son.

    DAWSON (screaming back): Playing football at West Canaan is not the opportunity of a lifetime!

    DAD: Your attitude is wrong, your tone of voice is all wrong. This is your opportunity!

    DAWSON: For you! Playing football at West Canaan may have been the opportunity of your lifetime. (Dramatic pause.) But I don't ... want ... your life.

    REPORT CARD
    Plot: C-plus

    Production Value: B-plus

    Sports Scenes: B-plus

    Chill Scenes (3): C-plus

    Climactic Game Scene: B

    Final Scene: D-minus

    DVD Extras: F-minus-minus

    Intentional Comedy: C-plus

    Unintentional Comedy: A-minus

    Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: A

    Unpredictability: D-minus

    Re-watchability: B-plus

    Overall Implausibility: A-plus

    Dated-ness: Does not apply

    Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: C-plus

    Lead Actor: C-plus

    Lead Actor as Athlete: B-plus

    Sidekick(s): B-minus

    Supporting cast: B-plus

    Wet Blanket Girlfriend: B

    Coach: B-minus

    Token Hot Chick(s): A-minus

    Token Fat Guy: A-minus

    Token Angry Black Guy: B

    That Guy Factor: D-minus

    Defining Quote: B-plus ("I don't ... want ... your life.")

    Intangibles: A-minus

    Okay, maybe you can't do it justice in print. But Dawson ripping off that "But I don't ... want ... your life" line with that dreadful Texas accent ... I mean, does it get any better than that? I could watch that 100 times. In fact, I just did.

    If you were trapped in a well and missed "Blues" during one of its 735,000 showings on HBO2 over the past five years, you can probably guess how the movie ends ... as long as you're not suffering from a severe head injury. And if you HAVE seen it, three comments about the climactic big game:

    1. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the football sequences are superb. I'm not kidding. Yeah, they go over-the-top with the MTV stuff and the Playmakers-style hits, but would you rather watch these game scenes or the suffocating camera angles from "Remember the Titans"? I thought so. All of the players are convincing, especially Dawson -- I mean, who would have thought that Dawson could throw a tight spiral? I would put the football scenes here on par with the basketball scenes in "Blue Chips," which is saying a lot.

    2. At halftime, Dawson leads the rebellion against Coach Kilmer, eventually driving him out of the locker room and high school football altogether (although they should have had him shoot himself like the Warden at the end of "Shawshank"). And that's all fine. You could see it coming a mile away, like just about everything else in this movie. In the second half, the kids coach themselves, led by Lance Harbor on crutches. Again, this is fine. In fact, if the '92 Blazers had done this, they could have won the title that year. But here's the big question ...

    Where were Kilmer's assistants? Did they leave with him at halftime? Did they even exist in the first place? Were they vaporized by the same Sports Movie Whiteout that made Buddy disappear for 30 minutes in "Hoosiers"? This always bothered me. Then again, I enjoy being bothered by it, if that makes sense.

    3. As you know by now, every great sports movie needs a Chill Scene. Without a quality Chill Scene, you're not cracking my Top 35, and you're probably not even a true sports movie. You just aren't. As crazy as this sounds, "Varsity Blues" has THREE chill scenes ...

  • Dawson's first game (we mentioned this already).

  • Dawson's big halftime speech. I'm sorry. He got me. Uncle. When a talent like James Van Der Beek goes to that "place," the place that great actors hit from time to time ... I mean, we're just putty in his hands.

  • The game-winning play, as Billy Bob (token fat guy alert!!!!!) rumbles through about 25 defenders in slow-motion as time expires. Absolutely ridiculous, completely far-fetched, totally manipulative ... and yet, why are the hairs on my arms standing up every time?

    Believe me, I'm not saying any of these scenes compare to Roy Hobbs's homer at the end of "The Natural," or even Shannon Tweed's hot tub scene in "Hot Dog: The Movie." But they get the job done. And really, that's all that counts.

    To the big question ...

    Where does "Varsity Blues" rank in the big scheme of things? Well, it isn't as good as "All the Right Moves" -- both the acting and the football scenes fall short. But it's exceedingly re-watchable, and it's always entertaining, and dammit, these things should count in the big scheme of things. For instance, "Raging Bull" always gets ranked in the Top 10 of every Sports Movie list ... how many times would you watch "Raging Bull" in your life? Maybe twice? It's like a colonoscopy -- you're glad you did it, but you never want to do it again.

    But a movie like "Varsity Blues" -- fine wine, baby. Gets better with age.

    That's why I have it ranked No. 30.

    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.