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Actor Dylan Baker’s first directorial effort is bound to be termed the real “Blind Side.” Like the feel-good movie that brought Sandra Bullock an Oscar, “23 Blast” is an uplifting, fact-based sports tale about a talented high school football player. In this case, however, the boy’s career on the field—and indeed, his whole life—are abruptly changed when an ocular infection—bacterial meningitis—literally leaves him sightless. But will the condition stop him from playing—or living life to the fullest? What do you think?

“23 Blast” is what’s termed a faith-based movie, one with an inspiring Christian subtext. But despite the fact that the real Travis Freeman, the young man who goes blind, appears briefly as the preacher he always wanted to become, the script doesn’t pound home the religiosity with a sledgehammer. Rather it opts for the earnestness of a Hallmark Hall of Fame-style telefilm, with all the virtues and flaws such a description entails. On the one hand, it’s well-meaning and high-minded; on the other, it’s obvious and predictable.

The focus is on Travis (Mark Hapka) and Jerry (Bram Hoover, who also co-wrote the script with his mother Toni), who meet as kids playing pee-wee football and quickly demonstrate how well they work together as passer and receiver. Fast forward and they’re still an unbeatable pair on their high school team, the Corbin (Kentucky) High Redhounds, where Travis catches quarterback Jerry’s passes and gets the lion’s share of credit for the team’s success. That’s apparently because he’s the straight-shooter of the two, going to class and helping his mom in addition to working hard on the field, while Jerry doesn’t even bother learning the plays, preferring to party hard instead.

When Travis’ malady strikes, despite Jerry’s support it sends him into a funk, and he becomes a virtual recluse, depending on night-and-day care from his doting mother Mary (Kim Zimmer) and, to a lesser extent, his timorous dad Larry (Baker, doing double duty). He even avoids contact with Jerry and his other best bud Ashley (Alexa Vega). Fortunately a hard-driving social worker, Patty (Becky Ann Baker, Dylan’s wife), takes charge, forcing Travis to leave his unkempt room and venture out into public, learning to navigate the hallways of the school so he can return to classes. And Jerry’s always there to help, though the football team, absent Travis’ leadership, isn’t in particularly good shape.

That’s when gruff but supportive Coach Farris (Stephen Lang) has what initially sounds like a crazy idea: Travis should rejoin the squad, not of course as receiver but as center. It’s a decision that riles Cameron (Max Adler), the present center, who resents having to change positions; and it brings complaints from the story’s two chief villains, Cameron’s father (Scott Sowers) and the school’s athletic director, Mr. Duncan, whom Timothy Busfield plays with such over-the-top comic nastiness that his very presence comes to seem a joke. It also causes a temporary rapture of Travis and Jerry’s friendship, though in the end they come through it with their brotherly feelings intact. And you can rest assured that the final game action is calculated to bring a lump to your throat, particularly when the makers take the opportunity to introduce real people from the story cheering in the stands.

There’s no doubt that “23 Blast” is manipulative, and that it deals with the facts of Freeman’s story rather loosely (Travis was actually twelve when he became blind, not eighteen or so). But it’s all in the cause of inspiring viewers to believe that people can overcome even the worst that life might bring, if only they believe they can. And whether or not you’re willing to buy that message, Baker delivers it better than one might expect. He gets a good performance from Hapka, especially considering how difficult it is for a sighted actor to play a blind person; and though Hoover should have been reined in more, his excessive exuberance doesn’t prove fatal, while Vega is nicely natural as Travis’ prospective girlfriend. Lang’s underplaying balances Busfield’s exaggeration somewhat and Baker is attractively understated as Larry (though Zimmer overplays Mary). But the standout among the older actors is certainly Becky Ann Baker, who makes Patty a veritable force of nature.

“23 Blast” was a modest production, and shows it on the technical side, with workmanlike cinematography by Jay Silver and a production design (by Adri Siriwatt) that seems to cut corners whenever possible; the on-field action, in particular, doesn’t really capture the intensity of the real thing. But the fact that it’s modest in most other respects, too, is a plus. Unlike many faith-based movies, it’s fairly restrained in delivering its message, and easier to take than most of them. But by higher standards it’s still just a middling effort.


Slick but superficial and overloaded with clichés, David Dobkin’s combination of familial reconciliation and courtroom fireworks resembles nothing more than a “very special episode” of a TV lawyer show—one made by David Kelley, perhaps. “The Judge” is entertaining enough, but in a shallow, manipulative fashion that leaves you feeling vaguely used at the end.

The movie does, however, provide meaty roles for its two leads. Robert Downey, Jr. (whose wife is one of the producers) plays Hank Palmer, a canny, unprincipled Chicago defense lawyer who specializes in getting sleazeballs off via whatever cheap trick he can come up with—a part that utilizes to the hilt the actor’s ability to exude smarmy charm while delivering quick-witted zingers. (Just think Tony Stark with a law degree from Northwestern, no less.) One morning, however, brings a double whammy: his wife (Sarah Lancaster) is preparing to divorce him, and he gets news that his mother has died. The latter prompts him to drive back to the Indiana hometown he hasn’t visited in years for the funeral.

There he’ll have to confront his estranged father Joseph, the crusty title character who’s sat on the bench for over forty years and greets Hank with an indifference than occasionally morphs into outright contempt. They’ll have to bond again, of course, but the catalyst comes when the elder Palmer is charged with deliberately running down an unsavory local ex-con (Mark Kiely) he’d once treated leniently in sentencing for threatening his girlfriend—a lapse that enabled the man to brutally murder her after a few weeks in the county lockup. When his local attorney (Dax Shepard) proves utterly incapable against Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a seasoned prosecutor from Gary, Hank will have to take on the judge’s case and try to save him from the pokey. Joseph’s claims not to remember what happened despite evidence that it was his car that killed the victim, and his refusal to follow his son’s instructions, make the task all the more difficult.

This central aspect in the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque (based on a story by Dobkin and Shenk) isn’t without virtues, and it provides Downey with plenty of opportunities not only to strut around smartly and exhibit the cunning that lies beneath the surface, but also to demonstrate his dramatic chops in scenes with Duvall. It also provides the older actor (playing considerably younger than his actual age) with the chance to shine. Duvall does the requisite crotchety act with aplomb, of course, but the part also demands him to show the character’s pain over his failing mind and body, and his does so unflinchingly, especially in a bathroom scene with Downey. If the scene turns squishy toward the close, as if Dobkin were fearful of challenging the audience overmuch, that’s typical of the whole film, which also culminates in a final courtroom revelation that ties together what happened on the highway on the night in question with long-ago events explaining the estrangement between father and son in all too pat a package.

What really hobbles “The Judge,” however, are all the ancillary tangents the script adds to this core, which among other things drags the picture out to nearly two-and-a-half hours. There’s the old high school flame of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) with whom he clumsily rekindles a romance, even though at first he’s unknowingly enjoyed a brief moment with a bartender (Leighton Meester) who turns out to be her daughter—and the father’s identity isn’t a matter of record. Then there are Hank’s two brothers—Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a tire-shop operator whose chance at a pro baseball career was ended by an accident that remains mysterious until late in the movie, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), a mentally-challenged young man who spends his time shooting film to add to the family’s collection of home movies. Both provide ample opportunity for Dobkin to recur to long-suppressed angers and lighten the mood by having the “Rainman”-like lad make inappropriate comments. Medical problems enter into the narrative, too, as also does Hank’s darling daughter (Emma Tremblay), who comes to town for a visit and elicits an outpouring of grandfatherly affection. Even a tornado—or at least the threat of one—makes an appearance. All of this burdens the picture with overmuch incident, as if the emotional baggage between Hank and Joseph weren’t enough for it to carry.

Still, Downey and Duvall provide some very strong moments, and though the rest of the cast are thoroughly overshadowed by them, D’Onofrio and Thornton have theirs too, even if they’re pretty much reduced to clichés. (The sneering, self-righteous Dickham, for example, is “characterized”—if that’s the right word—by a single quirk: bringing his own metal water-glass with him to court, which he ostentatiously opens up on several occasions.) Farmiga brings earthiness but little else to her role, and Strong is stuck in a part that would have been almost impossible not to reduce to caricature. The same thing applies to Shepard, who’s just walking comic relief, especially in a repeated bit about his squeamishness prior to entering the courtroom. Ken Howard, as a judge, Balthazar Getty, as a deputy, and Grace Zabriskie, as the dead man’s angry mother, all do reliable work. But it’s rather a shock to see David Krumholtz, who appears at the beginning and close of the movie as the exasperated prosecutor Hank comes up against in Chicago: he’s put on almost as much weight since “Numbers” as D’Onofrio has from his early days. But he still exudes the same haggard charm one recalls from his previous performances.

The technical aspects of “The Judge” are thoroughly professional. But while it’s nicely shot by Janusz Kaminski, it must be noted that the Massachusetts locations, with their rushing waterfalls and stores advertising thyme, do not prove a convincing stand-in for Indiana, though the brief shot of Downey driving past endless fields of corn is right on. Thomas Newman’s score accentuates the obvious.

So the verdict on “The Judge” is mixed. As a piece of pulp popular entertainment, it works reasonably well, and provides a vehicle for bringing together one of today’s major stars with one of the few real icons of cinema still working today. But ultimately its overlong mixture of judicial theatrics and sentimental family drama doesn’t amount to much.