Varsity Blues (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Move aside, Dennis Hopper. Step down, Alan Rickman. I am now convinced that no one can match Jon Voight when it comes to playing a thoroughly detestable bad guy. With his calm, sinister demeanor and menacing facial expression, Voight has the ability to cause everyone in the movie theater to loathe his character. Viewers hiss when he comes on screen and cheer when he gets his comeuppance. His role as the amoral, egotistical Coach Bud Kilmer in Brian Robbins' Varsity Blues is such a part.

This is not meant to impugn Voight's acting ability. In general, it takes a solid actor to make a vile villain. And, although Voight is capable of playing good guys, that hasn't been his forte of late. A glance at his recent resume reveals a veritable rogues' gallery of criminals, corrupt government officials, and backstabbers: the architect of the cover-up in Enemy of the State, the big business lawyer in The Rainmaker, the conscienceless general in Most Wanted, the sinister snake catcher in Anaconda, and the traitorous Jim Phelps in Mission Impossible. With Varsity Blues, Voight pours himself into yet another such portrayal, and, during those scenes when he's on screen, his energy level elevates the movie.

Unfortunately, Voight is not in every scene, and, when he's absent, Varsity Blues has a tendency to flounder, descending into the realm of formulaic sports movie melodrama. Although the film takes a worthwhile detour or two, it ultimately finds its way back to the well-worn track of its genre. In the end, everything is wrapped up in a too-predictable manner. While the tangents and character quirks keep Varsity Blues interesting for a surprising stretch of its running time, it is ultimately undermined by the need to conclude with a "big moment." Here, as is often the case, writers and directors are unwilling to take a chance with an ending that might be artistically satisfying but not crowd pleasing.

Varsity Blues takes place in West Canaan, Texas, where football is a way of life. In the words of the protagonist and narrator, John "Mox" Moxen (James Van Der Beek), "As a boy growing up in West Canaan, you never question the sanctity of football... It's win at all costs." Mox is the backup quarterback for the West Canaan Coyotes, the high school varsity team. Under their coach, Bud Kilmer, they have a sterling record. In his 30 year tenure, the team has won 22 district championships. This year, Kilmer intends to make it 23, and he thinks he has the players to do so, starting with his star quarterback, Lance Harbor (Paul Walker). Unfortunately, the coach's need to win has become an obsession, and it causes him to push his players into doing unsafe things (like taking drugs to numb pain). When Lance goes down with a serious injury, Mox has to step into the breach. He soon finds himself torn between his sudden celebrity status and his desire to stage an uprising against the coach.

James Van Der Beek, of TV's "Dawson's Creek," plays Mox as a basically noble character who falls prey to a few of the enticements of his heady new position. He is faced with some pretty strong temptations, too, including a girl dressed only in a whipped cream bikini, a car full of naked women, and an all-night party at a strip joint. There's no doubt that we're supposed to identify with Mox, but Van Der Beek is careful to allow his flaws to emerge - he's not so admirable that he sickens us. Still, in those scenes when Van Der Beek faces off against Voight, it's immediately clear who's the veteran and who's the newcomer. The other performers, including Amy Smart as Mox's girlfriend, Ali Larter as a blond bombshell, and Ron Lester as the overweight Billy Bob, are on Van Der Beek's level - adequate except when opposite Voight.

Taken as a whole, Varsity Blues is not completely without merit. Mox's moral dilemma, while not the substance of great drama, is moderately engaging. His sudden superstardom bestows a false sense of indestructibility upon him, and his newfound arrogance brings him into conflict with the coach. He must also determine whether his football success offers him enough of a future in the sport to derail his plans to attend an Ivy League school. And, of course, there are romantic complications (although these are played out with a minimum of melodrama). Missteps in Varsity Blues include a painfully inept subplot involving Mox's younger brother, who is obsessed with different religions (this is supposed to offer comic relief), a tangent featuring a sex ed teacher who strips on the side, and the trite ending. The final fifteen minutes force-feed us with an unfortunate resolution that devaluates this movie from the level of solid entertainment to a sporadically enjoyable diversion.

Varsity Blues (United States, 1999)

Director: Brian Robbins
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Amy Smart, Paul Walker, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Ron Lester, Eliel Swinton
Screenplay: John Gatins, W. Peter Iliff
Cinematography: Chuck Cohen
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1999-01-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1