The Films of John Lee Hancock
The Rookie (March 28/02)
Based on the true story of Jim Morris, The Rookie casts
Dennis Quaid as Morris - a middle-aged science teacher who once dreamed of playing in the major leagues until an injury sidelined his pitching career. Now, he's content coaching the school's losing baseball team and raising his young son with his wife. His team sees something in him, though, and offers him a bet - if they make it to the state finals, he has to try out for the majors. Not surprisingly, the team does progress to the finals and Morris must now hold up his end of the bargain.
The first half of The Rookie, featuring the antics of Morris' ragtag bunch of underachievers, is undoubtedly the weakest aspect of the proceedings. It's already a foregone conclusion that Morris is going to successfully try out for the majors, so all this stuff with these cliched kids is essentially filler. It's difficult to care about their quest for victory when we know that their storyline is going to be abandoned in favor of Morris' own quest. But it's entertaining enough (if predictable), in a Bad News Bears/Mighty Ducks sort of way. But the movie really gets going once Morris starts touring with a minor league team. The film makes it abundantly clear that, were Morris a young kid just starting out, he'd be having the time of his life playing and touring. But since Morris has a wife and son waiting for him at home, we see that it's really not worth it (especially considering the job pays a scant $300 a week, and he's got bills to pay). But when Morris finally does get the call from the majors, the movie becomes one of the most heartwarming feel-good flicks to come along in quite some time.
As Morris, Quaid proves that this is the sort of role he was born to play. While he does also excel at dramatic parts, he's got too much charisma to go through an entire movie without flashing that famous smile at least once. And here, he's at the top of his game. Quaid (as Morris) is an exceptionally likable guy - someone who once had a dream, but had to leave it behind when real life came into play. He's someone we want to see succeed, and for a movie like this, that's the most important element. The supporting cast is also good - particularly character actor Brian Cox as Morris' dad - but really, this is Quaid's show. And indeed, The Rookie is worth checking out if only for Quaid's performance. Non-baseball fans will undoubtedly find some aspect worth clinging onto - whether it's the never-abandon-your-dream philosophy or Morris' affection for his wife and child - and Quaid effectively anchors the whole thing.
The Alamo (April 7/04)
The Alamo documents what's undoubtedly an important moment in American history, but fails to make it relevant for viewers without any knowledge of the event. While the film is technically proficient and the performances are passable, there's absolutely nothing here for the average viewer to latch onto; the movie is curiously flat, void of any emotional context (ie this is the anti-Braveheart). The storyline involves a group of American soldiers - including Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) and James Bowie (Jason Patric) - charged with the task of defending the Alamo, an unfinished fort in Texas. At stake is the ownership of Texas itself, which previously belonged to Mexico. Meanwhile, General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) is leading a battalion of men to the site, where they'll assist in the battle. The first hour of The Alamo is primarily devoted to setup in which characters do nothing but talk, and the majority of their conversations are of absolutely no consequence. Such discussions are obviously meant to establish these people to the extent that we'll root for them later on, but it just doesn't work. Despite the best efforts of the admittedly charismatic performers, none of these figures ever become compelling enough to warrant the viewer's continued interest in their exploits. This is particularly true of the film's central character, Colonel William Barrett Travis, as actor Patrick Wilson just isn't able to keep up with folks like Thornton and Quaid and ultimately comes off as somewhat bland by comparison. It's not really his fault, though. The script, by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, and John Lee Hancock (who also directs, doesn't allow for the actors to really become these characters; there's a forced quality to the dialogue, as though the writers were more interested in getting the story from one point to another. Yet with all the chatting going on, there are still several unexplained elements in the story (ie a group of Mexican rebels are executed; what were they rebelling against?) that will undoubtedly confuse those that aren't versed in Alamo lore. And then there's the infamous battle at the Alamo, presumably meant to act as the highlight of the film (though another half hour of screentime follows rather anti-climactically). Like the "Helm's Deep" sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the fight at the Alamo is rendered virtually incomprehensible primarily because it occurs at night. Though it fares a little bit better than The Two Towers, the combination of darkness and the PG-13 rating turns the sequence into a muddled mess of torches and discharged muskets. Would the film have been better had Ron Howard directed, as he was originally supposed to? Doubtful, especially considering Hancock does an effective - if altogether bland - job of bringing this pointless story to the big screen.
The Blind Side
The Blind Side tells the true story of Michael Oher, a dim-witted, homeless teenager who turns his life around after he's welcomed into the home of a wealthy Southern family (which includes Sandra Bullock's Leigh Anne and Tim McGraw's Sean) - with the bulk of the movie subsequently following Michael's upward trajectory through his high school's football program. Director John Lee Hancock has infused The Blind Side with the feel of an almost prototypical feel-good sports movie, and although Leigh Anne's rationale for inviting a complete stranger to live in her home isn't explored to quite the degree one might've hoped for, there's little doubt that the chemistry between the characters, Leigh Anne and Michael especially, plays in instrumental role in initially drawing the viewer into the proceedings. The emphasis on lighthearted elements effectively opens The Blind Side's appeal beyond its gridiron-heavy premise, as Michael's ongoing efforts at acclimatizing himself to his new surroundings lends the film a fish-out-of-water feel that proves impossible to resist. Quinton Aaron's stirring work as Michael ensures that the character, though initially rather standoffish in appearance and demeanor, becomes an increasingly compelling figure as the movie progresses, yet there's no denying that Bullock's thoroughly (and unexpectedly) commanding performance stands as the film's most intriguing attribute - although, admittedly, it's just as clear that the actress' imposing turn often overpowers the efforts of her various costars (including Aaron himself). And while the film does lose some steam as it progresses - the overlong running time is exacerbated by the presence of certain undeniably superfluous elements and subplots (ie Michael's encounter with a comically villainous NCAA representative) - The Blind Side mostly comes off as an affable (if entirely unremarkable) piece of work that will probably have a more pronounced impact on fans of either Oher or football in general.
Saving Mr. Banks
Directed by John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks follows children's author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) as she reluctantly agrees to allow Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to make a movie out of her beloved Mary Poppins character. It's an appealing premise that's employed to erratic yet often engrossing effect by filmmaker Hancock, with the film, for the most part, presenting itself as a low-key portrait of Travers' damaged psyche - as scripters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith devote the lion's share of screen-time to Travers' difficult childhood and the impact it's had on her life. As such, Saving Mr. Banks has been suffused with a series of flashbacks revolving around Travers' adolescence and her relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell's Goff) - with the continuing emphasis on such moments, at the outset, wreaking a fair amount of havoc on the movie's momentum (ie the flashbacks, despite solid work from Farrell, simply aren't as captivating as the behind-the-scenes Disney stuff). It's worth noting, too, that Thompson's strong yet relentlessly bitchy turn as Travers is, from time to time, somewhat grating, with Hanks' tremendously entertaining and completely charismatic performance standing in sharp contrast (and ensuring that one can't help but wish his role weren't so limited.) There reaches a point, however, at which it becomes impossible to resist the old-fashioned, heartrending sensibilities of Marcel and Smith's screenplay, with the increasingly affecting nature of the father/daughter elements, coupled with a moving final stretch, confirming Saving Mr. Banks' place as an above-average melodrama - which is surprising, to be sure, given the unevenness of the movie's first half.