’23 Blast’: A tale of blind faith

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The movie, “23 Blast,” takes its name from the football play, in which the quarterback hands off to the running back, who then attempts to burst through a hole, produced by the offensive line.

The play figured prominently in the nationally televised 1967 gridiron confrontation between first-ranked, undefeated UCLA. team and their fourth-ranked cross-town rival, USC. The teams squared off for the championship the Pac 8 conference and a slot in the Rose Bowl. It was widely considered to be predictive of which team would eventually be voted as the nation’s best in end of season polls. The game featured UCLA quarterback, Gary Beban, who had won the Heisman Trophy in the previous year. USC’s roster featured running back, O.J. Simpson, would go on to win the 1968 Heisman trophy and become a record-setting player in the NFL. Decades later, Simpson’s 64-yard run is still widely regarded as one of the greatest in college football history.

A scene from " 23 Blast."Courtesy  http://23blast.com

A scene from “
23 Blast.”Courtesy http://23blast.com

Curiously, “23 Blast” has nothing to do with its most famous example of the play in a game that involved two celebrated college programs. Instead, it is inspired by the Redhounds, an obscure high school football team from small-town Corbin, Kentucky, circa 1997. However, the misleading title turns out to be the least of the myriad problems manifest in “23 Blast.”

In a prelude, running back, Travis Freeman, and quarterback, Jerry Baker, are players in a pee-wee program. In a practice session, the two connect on a long toss. It foreshadows the synergy between these two gifted athletes.

Fast forward a decade and the duo are teammates on a high school football team. The film contains a strange interlude, which proves disconcerting. In a film dominated by unrecognizable actors, we see two well-known ones, Fred Thompson and Stephen Lang. Thompson’s gravitas informed his portrayal of Manhattan District Attorney, Arthur Branch, on “Law & Order.” This role was preceded by his stint as a U.S. Senator from Tennessee and followed by an unsuccessful bid for the White House. Lang is a highly regarded character actor, who has graced both Broadway, television, and the silver screen.

Here, Thompson’s character is retiring as head coach and turning over the reins to his successor, Coach Farris (Stephen Lang). After this brief token appearance, Thompson is spared the embarrassment of any further screen time. Alas, poor Lang is doomed to a more sustained involvement with this meretricious vehicle.

Travis (Mark Hapka from “Days of Our Lives”), is the star player for the Corbin High Redhounds. He is a model student and even dutifully pitches in, helping his mother, Mary (Kim Zimmer), stock the concession stands at games. Jerry (Bram Hoover) becomes a quarterback, who forget plays and struggles with a drinking problem. We see him falling down in a drunken stupor at a party celebrating the first victory of the season. Quarterback is a position, which invariably attracts exaggerated credit for a team’s success and similarly receives undue blame for its failures. Yet, the screenplay for “23 Blast” implausibly posits that Jerry labors in obscurity.

In the prime of his promising athletic career, Travis contracts a sinus infection. In a fluke complication, the virus destroys his optic nerve, rendering him permanently blind. Overnight, Travis goes from being the town’s golden boy to an adolescent, who is disabled.  Naturally, he is consumed with bitterness.

Travis stops going to school, instead languishing in his slovenly room, where he neglects personal hygiene. There, he listens to loud rock music non-stop. The film details efforts by his parents and best friend, Jerry, to extricate Travis from the depths of self-pity. A key development involves the assignment of a social worker, Patty Wheatley (Becky Ann Bake) to Travis. She remonstrates him, “Get up off your sorry little can and figure out how to whip this.”

Then, there is a football twist. Coach Farris intuits that although Travis’ blindness precludes him from being a running back, he might be able to discharge the duties of an offensive lineman. After a few stumbling blocks, Travis becomes a capable center.

The film succumbs to heavy-handed deocentric iconography. It turns out that in real life. Travis Freeman became an ordained minister. In a particular bizarre scene, the actor portraying Travis is attending church, where he is listening to a sermon delivered by a visiting minister. He is a portrayed by the real-life Travis Freeman.

The premise of the film should be inspirational. Unfortunately, the inane screenplay devolves into sentimental hokum. It was co-written by Bram Hoover, who portrays Jerry, and his mother, Toni. He is a native of Corbin, Kentucky and attended the same high school that Travis did.

As formulated, characters are devoid of nuance. They are either totally virtuous or two-dimensional villains. The casting is absurd. Hapka and Hoover, both in their thirties, are totally unconvincing as teenagers.  In addition to playing Travis’ dad, veteran character actor, Dylan Baker, makes his debut as director. He demonstrates little finesse in his fledgling career. The film’s low caliber production values betray its miniscule budget.

I will refrain from disclosing any spoilers. However, with a title like “23 Blast,” you don’t need to be prescient to guess which play will be featured in the film’s inevitable denouement. This ill-considered title epitomizes the palpable lack of dramatic tension in “23 Blast.”

“23 Blast” exhorts the notion that the Lord works in mysterious ways. According to the film’s message, you just need to have blind faith.

* PG-13 (for some teen drinking) 98 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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