The Films of Gavin O'Connor
Miracle (January 31/04)
Miracle marks the latest feel-good Disney sports movie - following Remember the Titans and The Rookie - and the unabashedly sentimental nature of the story is somewhat refreshing. Like those two previous flicks, there's an innocence and good-natured quality to Miracle which is often attempted but rarely works (last fall's Radio stands as a perfect example of how this sort of thing can go horribly wrong). Anchored by one of Kurt Russell's best performances, the film doesn't require the viewer to have any knowledge of hockey - and considering how much of the sport is in the movie, that's no small feat. Russell stars as Herb Brooks, a tough and dedicated coach who's jockeying for a chance to lead the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. When he gets the job, he shocks his bosses by refusing to choose the best players in the game. Brooks instead picks folks that he thinks will work well together, and commences the rigorous training sessions. Though his fellow coach (played by Noah Emmerich) believes he's pushing the atheletes too hard, Brooks doesn't let up - even when his wife (Patricia Clarkson) begins to question his treatment of the players. Miracle is a blatant crowd pleaser, but there's no denying that it's often very effective. By the time that pivotal match between the States and Russia rolls around, the viewer can't help but root for Brooks' team to emerge victorious. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Soviets are portrayed as emotionless robots.) Though the film doesn't do a great job of differentiating between the players (they're identifiable in only the most basic terms, ie the goofy guy or the dude that played Tag on Friends), it's not a major problem since Russell's Herb is clearly the film's focus. As we learn fairly early on, Brooks was to participate in the Olympics some 20 years earlier but an injury prevented that from happening. It's not something that he seems to dwell on, but it's apparent that he's going to use that disappointment as an excuse to push his players harder than they initially expected. Eric Guggenheim's screenplay often threatens to reduce the character to the most simplistic terms, but Russell's amazing performance effectively offsets the script's deficiencies (to be fair, the Disney formula doesn't tend to allow for innovative writing in the area of character development). Oddly enough, the least enjoyable aspect of the film is the all-important game that concludes the story - if only because it often seems to transpire in real time. Thankfully, the match arrives at a point in which we have a lot invested in these characters, so the competition's overlength doesn't affect the movie as detrimentally as it could have. That Miracle is able to turn a thunderously dull sport like hockey into something semi-exciting is a testament to the filmmakers, particularly director Gavin O'Connor - who does a nice job of keeping the game coherent to those viewers with little knowledge of it. Though there's not much of a surprise regarding the film's outcome, the movie nevertheless remains enjoyable - albeit in the most earnest and sentimental way possible.
Pride and Glory
Warrior (June 16/12)
An uncommonly engrossing sports movie, Warrior follows estranged brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy) as they independently (and without the other's knowledge) begin training for the same lucrative MMA competition - with the film detailing the buildup to the big fight and the siblings' ongoing efforts at reconciling. Filmmaker Gavin O'Connor, working from a script cowritten with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, does an admittedly fantastic job of luring the viewer into the proceedings right from the get-go, as the director kicks things off with a stirring sequence involving Tommy's unexpected appearance on his father's doorstep - with this interlude heightened by the magnetic work from both Hardy and Nick Nolte. (The latter, cast as the boys' grizzled father, delivers a performance that's as good as anything within his long, storied career.) And although the fighting sequences are, at the outset, not as compelling as one might've hoped, Warrior benefits substantially from a continuing emphasis on the captivatingly low-key, character-based exploits of the three protagonists (ie the movie is, for the most part, one of the most compelling and affecting familial dramas to come around in quite some time) - with the film's high point unquestionably a tense beach encounter between Edgerton and Hardy's respective characters. The slow build ensures that by the time the aforementioned competition rolls around, Brendan and Tommy have both become absolutely enthralling figures that one can't help but root for - which does, in turn, ensure that the climactic fight sequences possess an unexpectedly electrifying quality (and the final brawl between the brothers is nothing short of hypnotic). By the time the emotionally-draining finale rolls around, Warrior has confirmed its place as an instant classic that manages to surpass even the original Rocky in terms of effectiveness - with Edgerton and, especially, Hardy's intense work merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the film's many, many pleasures.