There Was an Attempt: 'Varsity Blues' Review
There’s always something admirable about films that, although may fall victim to genre cliches and tired plot devices in the end, try and reach for something wholly original or important; be it through style, plot, themes, or other forms of cinematic experimentation. Regardless of what they reach for and whether or not they’re successful, in an age where making cheap films for quick money is a trivial task, the artful pursuit of some higher objective is, itself, a commendable thing.
Varsity Blues really isn’t a film you’d expect to fall under a category solely defined by the subversive tendencies of its constituent pieces. The one part of the aforementioned equation it appears to adhere to is the “falling victim to genre cliches and tired plot devices” portion - but appearances can be deceiving. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a film with serious flaws, but there is an attempt to add something meaningful to the oversaturated and predictable Texas football film genre. I mean hey, at least it’s not an atypical underdog story. Thanks for that easily recycled plot line Mighty Ducks.
Varsity Blues is the story of dominant Texan high-school football team, the Coyotes. Led to 22 division title wins by ruthless coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), the Coyotes are the pride of the town of West Canaan. In this unapologetically midwestern film, football is the ultimate test of a man’s capabilities and the Coyotes’ players are among the most respected in the town. Coach Kilmer himself, is deified by the town’s inhabitants and leadership - so long as he’s winning that is. To this end, Kilmer employs brutal training regimens and a harshly unforgiving attitude upon his talented, yet still young players. After star quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) is injured, second-string Jonathon "Mox" Moxon (James Van Der Beek) must step up and lead the team to its coveted 23rd title. His lax and uncaring attitude toward football as a national obsession gives Coach Kilmer cause for concern but as he begins to enjoy the perks afforded to players by the town (free beer, leeway with local law enforcement etc) his cynical opinion of the sport begins to soften.
And although the ramifications of the midwestern glorification of high school and college football is anything but undocumented, Varsity Blues approaches the topic with a surprisingly focused resolve. By looking at how the town treats the players simply for being on the team, regardless of how much trouble they stir or how hard they party, the film illustrates a clear problem: youthful immaturity and immensely lax restrictions on teenage indulgence is a recipe for disaster. In this regard, however, there’s not much payoff; although Mox’s attitude toward the sport changes and he rallies his players at the last possible moment (in a totally unprecedented turn of events), there’s something unsatisfying about how the film condemns such indulgence and then refuses to show any lasting consequences or personal revelations made by the players to counteract this destructive lifestyle. Then again, that could simply be Director Brian Robbins’ point.
Voight’s role as the single-minded Coach Kilmer is excellent - but only because he manages to squeeze a surprising amount of depth out of a thinly written character who serves only as the stereotypically cruel coach that the stand-in leader character must overcome to show his teammates that they’re worth more than their football talents. Instead of lazily consigning himself to a bad performance as an even worse character however, Voight’s turn as Kilmer is bolstered by meaningful expressions, top-notch delivery, and an attempt to derive sympathy from the audience for the character of Kilmer. Despite his less-than-pleasant disposition, Voight’s portrayal of Kilmer highlights the one thing many people fail to consider when they’re quick to call out borderline abusive sports coaches - sometimes they really don’t want to do and say the things they do toward their players. In fact, in Kilmer’s case, it’s a result of the social pressure he faces from the town’s citizens and the fear of the backlash he’ll receive if he fails to lead his team to another victory. After 30 years of unceasing pressure as a coach, it’s understandable why he’s as hard as he is. Now make no mistake, the film doesn’t try to pitch this side of Kilmer much at all, this complexity is a result of Voight’s excellent performance in what would otherwise be a cartoonishly angry stereotype.
Both Van Der Beek and Walker also give some refreshingly honest performances. Instead of twisting Walker into another “hateful and helpless former star” character who despises the film’s lead for being better/more capable than he currently is, he acts as a sort of mentor figure for the sullen Mox. Harbor (Walker)‘s girlfriend (Ali Larter) is the parasitic queen bee who latches onto the team’s star player which was Harbor but soon becomes Mox. Though you’d expect her to be the cliched tramp who ends up losing both men at the end of the film, there’s some depth to her motivations. Recognizing how the town treats its players, especially its best, she simply works her way onto them in order to get ahead socially.
Although it’s as predictable as sports movies can get and there is some tasteless and unoriginal humor scattered throughout the movie, Varsity Blues is better than most low-effort underdog stories because of its attempt, intentional or not, to criticize the irrational American obsession with athletes and physical prowess in the vainest sense. It might not be worth a watch for your regular Friday movie nights, but if you need something brainless enough that it won’t be a distraction but can still leave you mildly entertained if you decide to tune in now and again, Varsity Blues isn’t a bad choice.