Roar of the crowd helps drive 'Program' toward its goal

September 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

'The Program'

Starring Craig Sheffer, James Caan and Omar Epps

Directed by David S. Ward

Released by Touchstone

Rated R

***

"Amazing how potent cheap music can be," one of Noel Coward's characters once remarked. I think of that phrase every time I like something I know I'm not supposed to, for it's equally amazing how potent cheap melodrama can be. The case in point is "T Ward is the John Woo of the sports movie. This moribund genre has been sputtering along for dreary year after year, until he pretty much reinvigorated it with "Major League." It's as if he saw it differently and understood what was now necessary in the post-television age. Primarily, he's added two elements long since absent.

The first is crowds. Why this essential of the big-time sports movie escaped the movie-makers is a true mystery, but stop and think how many previous sports films have lost all purchase on credibility when they've played out their ultimate dramas in front of half empty stands representing "the seventh game of the World Series" or "The Rose Bowl" or some such? Not Ward: He packs 'em in, and so one has the extraordinary sense of thousands of screaming fans howling for blood, becoming part of and amplifying the drama.

Here he's flooded the stadium at the University of South Carolina and though some of the footage is stock intercuts of regular games, more than enough times we see the actors making big plays against a backdrop of the thousands. The camera is free to bounce and wander, too. There's not even the sense that only one sector of the stadium has been filled. He's filled the whole darned thing! It aids immeasurably to the illusion of reality.

The second is to capture the sense of cynicism under which all sport now toils. We all know by now that the clean-cut, reverential world-class athlete of boyhood -- the Dink Stovers, the Hoby Bakers, the Kids from Thompkinsville -- are child-men of highly attuned hand-eye coordination and refined aggression but also infantile in many ways, having never been said no to one day in their life. They're muscular babies sometimes trying hard to be men and sometimes content to stay babies. Moreover, they're enmeshed in a cynical, slick and opportunistic corporate culture which indulges them exactly as it exploits them.

Thus, when Joe Kane, the legendary junior quarterback for the mythical Eastern State University Wolves, is being touted for a Heisman trophy, he's just as astounded as we are to discover himself a product like a deodorant, sold by a very slick public relations team. There's no spontaneity at all. His interviews are carefully monitored and reshot when he wanders from the campaign line, as when he acknowledges fear or doubt. So it's no wonder that Joe ends up in a drunk tank.

The story is a series of carefully modulated little melodramas in a variety of tones: from wildly humorous to darkly revealing. It's a movie filled with clever little revelations: a seemingly "big dumb jock" doesn't know the Punic Wars from the Albert Gores but he can recognize shifts in offensive formations with the crackling authority of genius. So what does "dumb" mean, then? There's a vivid cultural conflict between African Americans of varying degrees of commitment to their own culture, and a poignant story of a steroid-inflated giant who desperately wants to do well on the field.

There's nothing much new, and I doubt if you could document a single surprise anywhere in "The Program," but once again the potency of the formula, professionally and zealously executed, makes the movie work at the most entertaining level. Yes, a big game at the end, a final touchdown drive, the clock ticking the seconds down toward oblivion, he drops back, looks for a receiver . . . do you really think he's going to miss?

Kane, the center of the film, is played by Craig Sheffer as a cocky, working-class kid with a texture of self-hatred learned from an alcoholic father. Sheffer is much better as the bad boy than as the dreary good one (in "A River Runs Through It"). Sinewy and thin, he appears to be enough of an athlete to pass (in both meanings of the word) as a quarterback (Remember Charlton Heston in "Number One" as an NFL QB? Not only were there no crowds but . . . he threw like a girl! All-time phony sports movie!)

Omar Epps is a new black player, an affecting mixture of vulnerability, shyness and guts, and even Halle Berry's prettiness doesn't keep her from delivering a good, hesitant performance. The only disappointment is James Caan as Coach Winters, the godlike figure who holds it together. Though in so many of his roles, Caan has flashed with macho brilliance (Sonny, in "The Godfather") he seems a little unsure here.

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