Saturday 25 October 2014


Jack Bruce's death reminded me of an afternoon many years ago when I lived in Montreal. I was listening to 'Theme From An Imaginary Western', and I was thinking about Ride The High Country, one of the truly great westerns, and I wrote the lines which became this poem. It was published, if I remember right, in Cid Corman's Origin magazine... I dedicated it to my film teacher, Jeanine Basinger.


two weary
horses carry


saddles into sunset


Jack Bruce was actually the most interesting one in Cream, though it was Eric Clapton who was God and Ginger Baker who any number of people used to tell me had only months (or perhaps the length of one more drum solo) left to live. Clapton became more fascinating as he aged, Ginger Baker survived easily to become a crotchety old man making occasional interesting jazz albums, but Jack Bruce seemed never to be able to transfer the buzz of Cream into something more substantial. It may be the classic story of a tremendous sideman who wasn't geared to be a superstar leader. He was Cream's lead singer, and a great one. He and Pete Brown were the primary song-writers. But my guess is that Bruce, to himself, was always a bass player.

And a bass player whose exceptional instincts were actually well off the mainstream that Cream mined so effectively. Clapton and Baker went on to Blind Faith, with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech, then Clapton left and BF somehow became Ginger Baker's Air Force.

But Bruce made two exceptional solo albums after Cream broke up: Songs For A Tailor and Things We Like. They were released in that order but apparently Things was recorded first, while Bruce was actually still a part of Cream. It's all instrumental, with John McLaughlin on guitar, Dick Heckstall -Smith on saxes (sometimes two at once a la Roland Kirk) and Jon Hiseman on drums. Bruce had played with the first two in the Graham Bond Organisation (that's Bruce, Heckstall-Smith, Baker, and Bond in the photo left); Hiseman had also played with Bond, John Mayall, and was starting Colosseum. It's really a proto-fusion jazz album, with an experimental undertone; fine if you were listening to Coltrane's Impressions or Miles Davis at the time.

Songs For A Tailor came out in 1969. It features Hextall-Smith and Hiseman, along with drummer John Marshall, British sax man Art Themen, guest spots by George Harrison and Chris Spedding, and producer Felix Pappalardi. It's a challenging record; a couple of the cuts were intended for Cream's Disraeli Gears but turned down because they weren't commercial enough. But Bruce's vocals and sometimes Brown's lyrics keep them approachable. I'd listen to 'Never Tell Your Mother She's Out Of Tune' or 'Boston Ball Game 1967' (the latter perhaps inspired by Earth Opera's 'The Red Sox Are Winning') and feel a sort of intellectual frisson you didn't get with Cream. It lacked the hooks, though, which is why it wasn't a huge success.

It probably would have done better had it followed Things, instead of come first. Bruce went back to power trios first with Leslie West in West Bruce and Laing, and then the group that recorded Out Of The Storm, guitarist Steve Hunter and either Jim Gordon or Jim Keltner on drums. In 1975 he toured with a group including Carla Bley and Mick Taylor; a live recording of them turned up a few years ago. But his drug problems helped derail all three groups. Bruce continued to make loads of music, and much of it was very good. I have a bootleg disc called Jack Bruce & Friends, Live at the Bottom Line in New York in March 1980. The friends are Billy Cobham on drums (Bruce always attracted great drummers, which I think was an acknowledgement of his bass playing), ex-E Streeter David Sancious on keyboards, and Clemp Clempson from Colosseum and Humble Pie on guitar.

It was odd seeing Cream's reunion concert; Bruce looked like a wee Scottish pensioner, looking older now than Baker. Clapton (like Steve Winwood) seems to have aged remarkably well. But his playing was certainly still there. I watched it, but really didn't want the shadows of memory. Even then I went back to
the originals. And to his own stuff.

Including my favourite Bruce/Brown song, 'Theme For An Imaginary Western'. There's a power version on the Friends bootleg. It was a hit for Leslie West and Mountain, but the best version remains Bruce's on Songs For A Tailor, and it's a truly beautiful song. Listen to it here....RIP Jack Bruce

Friday 24 October 2014


My obituary of the pro wrestler Ox Baker is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to it online here. I over-wrote for the paper, and they edited it down adroitly, especially for an audience that didn't know Ox Baker, and indeed is unlikely to be interested in the minutiae of professional wrestling.

They also wouldn't know Bob Barker and The Price Is Right (there was a British version on Sky very early in the satellite TV days, where the prizes were low-end things like pen and pencil sets, and everybody looked a bit uncomfortable with the naked consumerism America loves) but I thought Ox's breaking 'kayfabe'(the wrestler's carny code for never admitting what is fake is fake) was both charming and significant. You can watch him and Bob Barker on You Tube (link to it here) to see what I mean.

You'll find one error of fact in their edit: Ox never held the NWA title; he won the NWA American belt from Bruiser Brody. He held the NWA Detroit title (won from The Shiekh), the WWA title (won from Cowboy Bob Ellis) and the WWC title in Puerto Rico (won from Carlos Colon). He never held those, or his other belts, for very long, as he was usually there to set up a big pay day when the local hero got his revenge.  But rather than simply add the bits that were cut, you can read my original copy here. As I say, the published version is probably much closer to what I should have written, but I look at this excess wordage as a small tribute to the Ox.


Although he was one of the most feared villains on the professional wrestling circuit for almost two decades, billed as having killed two opponents in the ring with his fearsome 'heart punch', the match for which Douglas 'Ox' Baker, who has died aged 80, will be best-remembered came in the 1981 film Escape From New York. Baker played Slag, the giant gladiator Issac Hayes (playing the Duke of New York) forces Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken to fight to the death. After Ox gave stuntman Dick Warlock all he could handle in rehearsals, Warlock offered Russell just one piece of advice as filming started: 'good luck'.

Standing six foot five and weighing 24 stones, his head shaved and eyebrows curled up like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and sporting a Fu Manchu moustache growing into massive free-form mutton chop sideburns, Baker certainly looked the part of a classic wrestling 'monster heel'. Eschewing robes, he came to the ring in a simple white tee-shirt bearing a slogan, usually 'I Like To Hurt People', seemingly added to its front in do-it-yourself iron-on lettering.

He was wearing such a shirt, reading 'Big, Mean and Ugly' when he appeared in 1981, fresh from his film role, on the daytime television game show The Price Is Right. Although he tried to maintain wrestling's carnival code of staying in character, his good-humoured quipping with host Bob Barker, and his obvious delight at the prizes he was winning, including a cooker, wall clock, and home stereo, revealed an almost cuddly gentle giant underneath the bluster.

It was as a gentle giant Ox broke into wrestling. Born Douglas Allen Baker 19 April 1934 in Sedalia, Missouri, he grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, a successful high school athlete before being kicked out of school. He joined the Army, where he played on gridiron teams which in that era were good enough to be scouted by the pros. But he was nearly 30, without a career, when he wandered into a wrestling promotion in Kansas City and asked for a tryout. Given a match which was supposed to punish him to test his mettle, he survived so well he was paid $300, and his career choice was made. His early matches saw him playing another traditional wrestling role, the hillbilly simpleton, in coveralls and with thick glasses.

In 1967 he debuted in New York's World Wide Wrestling Federation, the forerunner of today's WWE, billed as the Friendly Arkansas Ox. His first match was against Gorilla Monsoon, their top 'monster heel', and watching Bob Morella as Monsoon convinced Baker to turn heel. In those days wrestling was divided into many regional promotions, and rule-breaking monster heels were in demand to test local champions and generate ticket-buying 'heat' from the fans as their favourites got pumelled. Ox chose the heart punch as his finishing move, although for a time he called it the 'hurt punch' because another wrestler, Stan 'the Man' Stasiak already claimed to be the master of the move.

In June 1971, he and his partner Claw defended their AWA tag team title against Cowboy Bob Ellis and Alberto Torres. Three days after the match Torres died from what turned out to be a ruptured pancreas. With the customary ethics and good taste of the wrestling world, Baker claimed it was the result of his heart punch. A year later, Baker lost in Savannah, Georgia to Ray Gunkel, who died soon afterwards from a heart attack. Although Baker's punch may have caused a blood clot, Gunkel suffered from extreme arteriosclerosis and the coroner ruled it a freak accident. Nevertheless, Ox again took 'credit' for the death, though in reality he worked behind to scenes to aid Gunkel's widow Ann in a fight for control of his promotion.

Baker could literally start riots by refusing to stop heart-punching an opponent when he was down on the canvas. He wrestled all over the world, from Japan to Nigeria, and in 1982 he briefly held the British Commonwealth crown he'd won in Auckland. He won numerous titles in the US in the 1970s and early 80s, and helped a young wrestler billed as Terry Boulder win his first title in Alabama. A few years later, billed as Hulk Hogan, Terry Bollea would help the WWE achieve national dominance.

In 1980 Baker won the NWA American title from Bruiser Brody. Baker had played a small, uncredited part in Jackie Chan's film, Battle Creek Brawl,but he was hired for Escape To New York on Brody's recommendation after Bruiser turned the role down. Baker played a Russian wrestler in Blood Circus (1985), but his acting range was somewhat limited. He took a large part in a 1985 documentary I Like To Hurt People, which focused on Ed Farhat, who wrestled in Detroit as The Sheikh.

Baker opened a wrestling school, where he trained Mark Callaway, who became famous as The Undertaker in the WWE. He moved to Connecticut and in 1992 married Peggy Ann Kawa, a professional clown. In 2005 he was the subject of a documentary, I Love The People I Hurt, made by a local wrestler, Halfbreed Billy Gram, who also filmed My Smorgasboard With Ox. Neither has been released.

Peggy predeceased him in 2010. In 2011 Baker published Ox Baker's Cook Book: A Tribute To The Fallen Warriors, mixing recipes and wrestling stories. His film career was rejuvenated the following year by David Gere, a fan who cast him in an episode of a cable TV series, Chilling Visions and gave him a small part in Sensory Perception, with John Savage. He made his final appearance in the ring last year, winning a 13 man battle royal with a heart punch for a small promotion in Ohio.

With his health failing he still managed to shoot a cameo role for Gere's latest film Pinwheel. He died a week later, on 20 October 2014, in Hartford, Connecticut. The cause of death was a heart attack.

Sunday 19 October 2014


It  has nothing to do with the famous poster of a woman in tennis whites rubbing her bottom, but Tennis Girl, a 2013 short directed by Brazilian Daniel Barosa, and written by him with Humberto Palmas, packs a lot of emotion into its 15 minutes. It does it by showing very little but implying a lot. Ju is a pretty teenaged girl running late. She's snappy with her harried mother, she's distracted by text messages, and she's more interested in flirting with her tennis coach than actually having a lesson. On the face of it just a brief slice of a day in her life.

But as Felipe, the coach, ignores the flirting and implores Ju to concentrate on her lesson, she runs off to the toilets. But she stops along the way, contemplating yet another call on her mobile, and for an instant rubs her belly. We think back; the film opens with a shot of an empty corridor in the family's apartment; Ju eventually emerges from the loo. She skips eating, she ignores her mother and her godmother, and on the way out she barely has time for her friend, or her boyfriend who has been texting.

This film works like a quiet short story; I thought of Alice Munro, which might be too much praise, but the tone is perfect because its quiet, and the bleakness of the ending, contrasts with Ju's young hormonal energy. Bianca Melo is perfect as Ju, while Gabriel Godoy as Felipe is simply playing normal, emphasizing her adolescent energy, and Renata de Paula as her mother does much the same with great tiredness. Tennis Girl lingers with you, as a snapshot would, and by implying much more than it states, is very impressive indeed.


Irresistible Targets seal of approval shows its influence again. I posted my review of Leviathan yesterday afternoon; last night an email from the LFF informed me that it had been chosen best film in the Festival.

Right now I'd say it quite likely was the best film I've seen so far, and it's combination of a big theme with moving (and amusing) personal stories will probably make it a favourite for the best foreign film Oscar come the spring. Cue more celebrating from an exceptional cast and a very talented director/writer.

Saturday 18 October 2014


Leviathan is a Russian film that at times feels like a 19th century Russian novel; it's also a tightly-focused story about political corruption that at times feels almost epic. I saw it just after The Drop in this year's London Film Festival, and there are some similarities between the two: both are stories of people struggling with lives of quiet repetition, badly-paid work and a lack of control in the face of more powerful forces. They both also have a sense of failed religion about them, but there is a difference, because in Leviathan the church's presence is far more overt and the corruption is engrained throughout society.

Kolya is a handyman and mechanic who's built his own house overlooking his hometown on the northern Kola peninsula, near Murmansk. But the town mayor, Vadim, wants the property for a redevelopment project, and Kolya's old army buddy Dimitri (Dima), who's now a lawyer in Moscow, has shown up to help him, bearing a file of information about Vadim's shady dealings. Meanwhile, Kolya's first wife died, and his son Roma doesn't like his stepmother, Lilya.

The story plays out in the contrast between the lives of the characters who would have been called peasants in a 19 th century Russian novel, and the machinations of the bureaucracy which Vadim can use, with a little old-fashioned physical force thrown in. For a moment it seems as if Dima's approach, trying to get justice through the system combined with a little blackmail within the shadowy system might work. But then there is factor of human emotions, and of drink.

Kolya's life is an erratic dance between pain and pleasure. He and his friends, a couple of traffic cops, drink, smoke, drink, eat pickles, drink, shoot, and drink to excess. Alexey Serebryakov conveys the necessary facade of bluster with an endearing sensitivity; I could swear I was watching Victor the Ape, one of my drivers at the Moscow Olympics, as we got drunk on vodka and ate sour berries in 1980. As his nemesis, Vadim, Roman Madyanov is perfect, a mix of more effective bluster, feral cunning, and short-tempered violence which is contrasted with his public piety with the Orthodox bishop who is his confessor.

Vladimir Vdovitchenkov as Dimitri is a sort of Russian Belmondo, a figure of some glamour, which helps explain the tension which boils over between him and Lilya. As Lilya, Elena Lyadova steals almost every scene she is in, even as she seems to disappear into the background. And just as in classic Russian novels, it is a small personal event that triggers the resolution of the bigger tale.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev keeps a firm hand on this, and at times his portrayal of ordinary Russians fighting the system and taking their small pleasures it allows is both funny and touching. And it's tragic. The landscape of Kola, icy water, bare rocky hills, seems almost a character itself; one wonders what could be built on the land Vadim covets. And the landscape is littered with loss; the skeletons of boats and a beached whale speak of desolation, and the latter is referenced when a priest talks about the story of Job.

Kolya is a Job figure, but unlike Vadim he has no faith, no church, on which to fall back. The original story may have been inspired by a fight against eminent domain in Colorado, but it's a different, very Russian fight here, just as there is none of the organised violence that marks Heinrich Von Kliest's Michael Kohlhaas, another scource for this screenplay, and itself based on a true 16th century story. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin won the best screenplay award at Cannes this year (see photo, from left: Madyanov, Vdovitchenkov, Lyadova, Zvyagintsev), and Leviathan will be the official Russian entry at the Academy Awards.

At times the religious underpinnings at first seem a bit heavy handed, wearing the hypocritical moralising on its sleeve, but there is a twist at the end that brings the sense of it home powerfully. There's also an ambiguity, lef unsolved, about the death at the centre of the film's resolution. I believe the answer is hinted at and were I correct it would make tremendous tragic irony, but either way the point seems to be the inevitability of the film's denoument. The scenes of the church, and the scenes of the drunken friends having fun shooting their rifles at the portraits of former Russian leaders now discarded by the offices of the state, reinforce that point. It's a carefully layered story, a film that works brilliantly as those classic novels do, but satisfies on its own terms as well.

NOTE: This review will also appear, in a slightly different form, at

Thursday 16 October 2014


The Drop tells the story of Bob Saginowski, a quiet bartender at Cousin Marv's, whose owner, Marv, actually is his cousin. But Marv isn't really the owner; the bar belongs to Chechen gangsters, and they use it as a drop, where the money collected from their night's activities is dropped off. They have lots of drop bars; the collection moves around. Bob's life is about to change, when two things happen. Walking home one night he rescues a battered dog from a garbage can; he's forced to adopt the dog and he also meets Nadia, who helps him cope with that. It changes again when two guys in masks rob Cousin Marv's. It wasn't a drop night, but the five grand lost still belongs to the Chechens; they want it back and they want the robbers gone. Bob's quiet but he knows things. 

The movie opens in the bar, with Bob buying a round for a group of friends remembering Richie 'Glory Days' Phelan, a small-time drug dealer who disappeared ten years before, after leaving Cousin Marv's. Marv doesn't like that Bob sprang for the round; it tells you a lot about the two, almost but not quite all you need to know.

Bob is a showcase role for Tom Hardy, the British actor who's got to adapt to Brooklynese (usually difficult, British actors tend to switch from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Alabama in the same sentence) and Hardy handles it well. When I reviewed Dennis Lehane's novel, an expansion of his original short story I said Hardy would have to underplay the role significantly (you can link to that here) and he does just that. In fact, at times his performance recalls Tim Robbins' in Mystic River, doing the slow retard shuffle for all it's worth. Mystic River, of course, was another Lehane story, and like Dave in that story, Bob may have simply seen too much.

The setting of The Drop has been changed, from Lehane's Boston to Brooklyn. Cousin Marv's bar is now decorated with a New York Giants football helmet lamp, and the patrons sport Giants and Jets jackets instead of Patriots or Red Sox. I suppose Brooklyn is hipper than Boston, but the film is resolutely unhip, set in the same kind of working class neighbourhood as Mystic River's Southie, full of dead ends and alleys, which Belgian director Michael Roskam seems to relish.

Because of the dog, and Nadia, Eric Deeds enters Bob's world. The dog was his, and if Bob wants now to keep it, there will be a price to pay. Deeds is a borderline psycho who is rumoured to have killed 'Glory Days'. And Bob has provided the police (and thus the Chechens) with a small piece of identification about the bank robbers: one wore a watch stopped at 6:15. From these roots the story proceeds slowly, but almost relentlessly. You have to pay attention to small bits of dialogue, to small actions, to keep up with it fully; there are hints dropped along the way which pay off as the story is resolved, but more important, there are echoes: characters who mirror each other, events that reverberate in time, and a feel of tragic inevitability to almost everything that happens.

It's the Eric Deeds character who's most problematic. Matthias Schoenarts, as if taking a cue from Hardy, underplays his character too, but sometimes the sense of real menace in Deeds is lacking. What the film does, subtly and quickly, is establish the way in which Deeds and Bob are yin and yang, contrasting sides of a coin. I don't want to review the film by comparison to the story and book, but in the novel Deeds is given a lot of background, establishing his own victimisation in prison, his own violence, and his self-help list of things to remember, a perverse sort of Dale Carnegie prescriptions to influence people, if not win friends. Also lost is the backstory for Detective Torres, which is not so essential, and, sadly, the wonderful speech about life which Chovko, the Chechen gangster, makes when Bob pours him a Midleton Irish. Only the punch line remains.

The original story was called 'Animal Rescue', and that's what the whole story is about. There are people who need rescuing throughout the film, and some get rescued, while others don't. That the local church, which Bob has attended regularly for ten years without taking communion, is being sold off for redevelopment simply echoes that theme. Hardy's hang-dog expression makes this theme of rescue clear, and Noomi Rapace is very good at playing another damaged person in need of rescue herself even as she throws a lifeline out to Bob. Picking up a small statue of angel with one wing at Bob's kitchen table she asks, 'do you want me to fix it?'

But the hidden center of the film is James Gandolfini, in his final role, as Marv. Once a player, if only on a small scale, he's now living with his sister (the excellent Ann Dowd), both of them hanging on to dreams but barely getting by. After the film one critic told me it was sad to see Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano yet again in his final role, but nothing could be further from the truth. He inhabits Marv, and his TV role never enters into it. It's a fine performance that works in perfect contrast to Hardy's restraint, exactly the way the characters should be, and it's that concentration on the contrast that makes The Drop work so well.

NOTE: This review also appeared at Crime Time (

Sunday 5 October 2014


George Shuba was the last of the 'Boys Of Summer', the Brooklyn Dodgers whose 1955 season, when they won their only World Series title, was memorialised in Roger Kahn's book of that title. But Shuba's claim to immortality rests on something that occurred a decade earlier, in a single moment that happened to be recorded by a wire-service cameraman in a photograph whose simple beauty and impact made it a 'shot heard round the world' every bit as much as Bobby Thompson's home run was a few years later. It's a rare thing, to have your life encapsulated in single frozen instant, but it was something Shuba never regretted.

The moment came at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, on 18 April 1946. It was the home opener for the Jersey City Giants, the top farm team of the New York Giants. They were playing the Montreal Royals, the top farm team of their arch-rival Dodgers. Making his debut for the Royals was Jackie Robinson, the first black player in 'organised' baseball since the 19th century.

In the third inning, Robinson hit a home run. As he toured the bases he got a slap on the back from his manager, Clay Hopper, who came from Mississippi. But his two teammates whom he'd driven in didn't wait for him at the plate, as is traditional; instead they went straight back to the dugout. So as Robinson approached home plate, Shuba, the next hitter, came up to the plate and shook his hand, before Robinson had even touched home. Look at the second, reverse angle photo: Jackie is still in the air.

 George Shuba, of course, was white. And he understood what he was doing. 'When he hit the home run, everyone was looking to see if a white guy would shake his hand,' Shuba recalled in 1996. 'It didn't make any difference to me that Jack was black. I was just happy to have him on our team.'

Look at the famous picture. Robinson's pure joy at hitting that shot, at belonging, at being part of this thing that was major league baseball, which had been closed off to him and those like him. Look at the umpire's disgruntled reaction. And look at the packed crowd and the patriotic red white and blue bunting, and realise how significant this was for a country who'd gone to war with a segregated military, and had court-martialled Lieutenant Jack Robinson for refusing to move to the back of a segregated Texas bus.

Shuba was nicknamed 'Shotgun' for the way he sprayed line-drives off his bat. He played for the Dodgers in the late 40s and early 50s; he was a good-hitting outfielder but not a great fielder, especially after he hurt his knee in 1952. He usually found himself stuck behind someone Dodger general manager Branch Rickey thought was better, no doubt he would have had a better career with some other team. In fact, his main to claim to fame on the diamond would be as the answer to the trivia question ' who batted for Don Zimmer in game 7 of the 1955 World Series?'. Shuba didn't get a hit, and in the bottom of the inning Junior Gilliam moved from left field to second base, and Sandy Amoros, not Shuba, replaced Gilliam. Amoros then made a spectacular catch of a sure double off the bat of Yogi Berra. Three innings later, Brooklyn won their only World Series.

Shuba was the son of immigrants from what is now Slovakia. He saw baseball as a way to avoid a lifetime in the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio. He grew up playing sports with blacks as well as whites in the integrated mill town. As a kid he hung ropes from the ceiling of his bedroom, with knots to mark off the strike zone, and swung a bat through the zone 600 times a day. He signed with the Dodgers aged 19, after a tryout camp in 1944. With the war on players were in short supply, but Shuba was exempt because of a burst eardrum suffered when a nun slapped him during lessons at Catholic school.

He hit well in what was then class A in 1945, and began the '46 season with AAA Montreal. Jackie Robinson got four hits on that opening day, but the next day Shuba hit three home runs. Nevertheless, he was sent down to AA Mobile by the end of the month. He would not make the Dodgers until 1948, but for the next three years he shuttled between the big team and their farm clubs. His stats in part-time minor league ball are impressive (.389 batting average in '48, 28 homers in '49) but need to be put into the context of a hitters' era. And of course into the context of the likes of Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, and only 16 big league clubs, you can understand why Rickey stockpiled talent in his system and kept it away from other teams. As Shuba told Roger Kahn, 'As long as he could option me, you know, send me down but keep me Dodger property, Rickey would do that so's he could keep some other guy whose option ran out. Property, that's what we were. But how many guys you know ever hit .389 and never got promoted?'

Ironically, he was having his best year when he injured his knee in 1952: in about half a season he hit .305 with 9 homers and 40 rbis. He came back to mediocre stats for the next two years, and in '55 hit .275 (with a .422 on base pct) but had only 64 plate appearances. He was back in the minors in '56, and in the Cubs' system in '57, when he finally hung up his spikes. He returned to Youngstown, got married, and worked as a postal inspector.

Shuba kept only one piece of baseball memorabilia: a copy of that AP photo. As his son Michael told the press after his father died, when he came home from school complaining about bullying, his father would say 'Look up at that photo. I want you to remember what that stands for. You treat all people equally.' It was only an instant, but it was one that should live forever.

Saturday 4 October 2014


In a low-key kind of way, Kevin Costner has become to sports movies what Clint Eastwood was to westerns: the go-to guy who can change with the generations. Costner's been a baseball player (three times), a golfer, a cyclist, and a boxing fan (OK I'm stretching things a bit). Now, after a gap of 15 years, which is a decade and a half in sports terms, Costner is back in Draft Day, playing Sonny Parker, general manager of an American football team, the (real life NFL team) Cleveland Browns. We know for a fact this means trouble, because most of us have seen the real life Cleveland Indians baseball team embrace Charlie Sheen and Wesley Snipes in Major League! And this is football, and football is what Cleveland and Ohio are all about.

But Sonny has problems. He's the general manager, but his father was once the Browns' legendary coach, and Sonny fired him. The new coach (Dennis Leary) is an obnoxious ball of tightly-wound ego, making you wonder why Sonny hired him. The team is coming off a losing season during which they lost their star quarterback to a serious injury, and the bad finish which has earned them the number seven pick in the annual NFL draft of college football stars. Sonny has ideas about who he wants to choose with that pick, but Coach Penn has his own ideas, and even worse, Anthony Molina, the team's owner (Frank Langella) wants him to 'make a splash' with the fans, and trade up in the draft to get the nation's biggest college star, quarterback Bo Callahan.

As if that weren't enough, Sonny's girlfriend has just told him she's pregnant. They've been keeping the relationship secret because she also works for the Browns, controlling their salary cap. And in the final touch, Sonny's mother wants to scatter his father's ashes on the team's practice field. On draft day.

That's the set-up for a behind-the-scenes look at American football that works as a cross between Moneyball and Jerry Maguire. And it does work a bit, especially when you consider there isn't actually any scene of football in the movie, apart from when Costner or the scouts examine game film of the prospects they're arguing about. This means you don't have to be fully versed in the game itself, though the concept of the draft, the use of draft picks, and even of trades of players, might be a challenge for some of the British audience. That's not because the movie doesn't explain, but because it often relies on American commentators to explain and embellish what's happening, and their faces won't mean much to the British audience, and their explanations do assume knowledge.

But this isn't rocket science we're talking about, and the concepts are pretty clear, certainly no fuzzier than any of the spate of recent films about financial chicanery on Wall Street. If you can understand shorting sub-prime mortgages, you ought to be able to follow trading three future first-round picks for this year's first pick overall. If you do understand the game well, you'll have to cut the film-makers a little slack; no GM alive would trade three years of number one picks, and even fewer than none would then trade them back! At least not without some further tweaking, but this is Hollywood, not Cleveland. Even worse is when Sonny wants to watch tape of the big college game between Callahan's Nebraska and linebacker Vonte Mack's Ohio State. Mack dominates early, then disappears. Suddenly, someone remembers he got thrown out of the game. You're telling me the scouting department of a NFL team "forgot" one of their targeted college players, a high first-round pick, was thrown out of his biggest game of the season? Even if no one had bothered to watch the game, or the tape, it would have been blown into an explosion high in the social media stratosphere!

This is important, because the roots of Costner's dilemma go back to more basic questions of character, both his and the prospects he's evaluating. He has doubts about Callahan which no one else shares. Which runs parallel to the decision he has to make over his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner). This may be the part of the film which is actually harder to understand. Sonny's obviously a successful mature man. Ali works in football. She tells the coach that 'I am a Cleveland girl and I am football'. She loves football. And she's Jennifer Garner. Costner's only dilemma ought to be whether or not he should be having her babies.

The movie's well done, keeping the action moving, and making it look real, not least because it features real teams, NFL people, and TV announcers walking around. Of course we know the Seattle Seahawks won the last Super Bowl; they didn't finish last and have the first overall draft pick. Leary didn't really convince me as a football coach (he looks more like a quality control assistant) but Langella is brilliant as the owner, used to getting his way and dominant especially when he's in the same room as Commissioner Roger Goodell (playing himself). Langella's clearly relishing the role. There's an equally brilliant brittle turn by Ellen Burstyn as Sonny's mother: and when the twist that explains a lot of Sonny's insecurity is revealed it helps explain a lot. Football fans will recognise Arian Foster as one of the college players; Terry Crews (last seen on Newsroom as Jeff Daniels' bodyguard) plays his father, an ex-Browns star. Crews played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe, and I remember interviewing him: that's a pretty neat career arc in just 20 years. For him, at least.

But the film not only feels it has to over-explain, it then goes on to summarize and restate the obvious. Over and over again. Repeatedly. More than once. They take one good idea, sprinkle a little fairy dust on it, believe in themselves, and make it into a movie. That sort of thing. Of course real announcers would be a little less moronic, a little more analytical, and, but...wait...what? those ARE real announcers. Oh no!

But the film rests with Costner. His seriousness helps it stay anchored, even when director Ivan Reitman seems to be more concerned with comedy, or split screen techniques just for their own sake. The film needs that stolid sense that Costner projects. I compared him to Clint Eastwood at the top of this piece, but that was just on subjects of films (and really Wesley Snipes may be running Costner neck and neck on sports movies). The classic actor whom Costner resembles most is Gary Cooper—strong and silent, able to play sensitive, and occasionally funny when playing off hos own wooden exterior (think of Cooper in Ball Of Fire or Costner in The Bodyguard). Cooper's Pride Of The Yankees is Costner's Field Of Dreams. Open Range is Costner's High Noon. Cooper's Sgt. York is Costner's Dances With Wolves; Court Martial Of Billy Mitchell is JFK, Morocco is No Way Out and so on. Costner may wrestle with his conscience in most movies, but the match is almost always tilted one way.

If you're a football fan you'll enjoy draft day, and if you're not the most knowledgeable fan you might pick up a little bit about how the business works. If you're not a fan, you'll still able to follow the twists, and if you liked the gushy bits of Jerry Maguire, Jennifer Garner won't disappoint you. Draft Day is worth an evening, whether in football season or not.
Draft Day opened on release Friday 3 October, and is also available for download.