August 28, 2008

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The Longshots (PG)
Ice Cube is surprisingly effective in The Longshots, a by-the-numbers but nonetheless solid underdog sports tale.

And this movie is directed by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit fame. And I still liked it.

Curtis Plummer (Ice Cube) is the picture of down-on-your-luck-ness. He shuffles around town in dirty clothes, drinking beer from a paper bag in the park during the middle of the day and carrying a football, his reminder of happier days. It’s not only the economic woes of his town (closed factory, etc.) that have Curtis down; he’s still mourning the loss of his mother a few years earlier. His middle-school-aged niece Jasmine (Keke Palmer) and her mother Claire (Tasha Smith) are doing better than Curtis, but since Curtis’ brother abandoned them, Jasmine’s been quiet and withdrawn and Claire is worried about her. When she’s asked to work late at the diner, Claire asks Curtis to come and watch Jasmine — to keep her out of trouble and to keep her from burying herself in a book.

At first, Jasmine is none too pleased about having her uncle underfoot — his scruffy appearance isn’t helping her already dismal social status and she does seem bent on keeping her emotions to herself. But during one enforced bonding session, Curtis gets Jasmine to throw a football. Despite her inexperience, it’s a good throw and he can see she has a strong arm. Soon, he cajoles her to toss the ball some more and then he starts to teach her the skills she needs to know to be a good quarterback.

What is first a way to pass the time soon becomes a possible extracurricular activity for Jasmine. Despite her embarrassment, Jasmine gives in to Curtis’ encouragement to try out for the team and soon finds that she really does have the desire to play. And, hey, since the team is pretty lousy anyway, why not give the girl a shot?

The Longshots is a greatest hits of sports movie clichés — you’ve got your economically dispirited town, you’ve got your underdog team in need of a turnaround, you’ve got your non-traditional player who has to earn the respect of the team through extraordinary skill, you’ve got your social outcast, you’ve got your former player (Curtis) finding new life after his glory days. What have I left out? Big game? Absent parent? Financial setback requiring the whole town to pitch in? Yep, we’ve got those too.

What’s surprising is that all these well-worn plot threads actually come together to make something more entertaining and even more emotionally genuine than you’d expect. It really is a greatest hits, a mix tape of your favorite songs, instead of a bunch of painful karaoke covers.

Ice Cube — and years of Are We There Yet?-ish comedies can make you forget this — is a good actor. He is able to both be an Everyman and have a bit of an edge, a raggedness that can make you believe he’s a sad man mourning the death of his town, his mother and his dreams. (That sounds hokier, I promise, than it comes off.)

What really sells the character here is his excellent chemistry with Palmer, the 15-year-old playing his niece. They aren’t saccharinely sweet together nor is she inexplicably snotty. She has the frustration and sadness of a real preteen. Their father/daughter relationship is full of the friction you’d expect in this situation and makes us care enough to watch the scenes of Jasmine learning the game.

The Longshots will not surprise you with its story — there’s nothing here you haven’t seen in Friday Night Lights or dozens of other football movies. But it will surprise you with its heart and its genuine approach to this standard script. B

Rated PG for some thematic elements, mild language and brief rude humor. Directed by Fred Durst and written by Nick Santora, The Longshots is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by MGM.