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'Boys in the Boat' falls short of best intentions

As a Washington boy, there's no way I wasn't reviewing this week's premiere of "The Boys in the Boat," based on the 2013 book by Daniel James Brown, about the University of Washington rowing team that competed in the 1936 Summer Olympics.

I was joined during my screening by a fan of the book, retired English literature teacher Linda Boxleitner, my mom, who lives in Cape George, and my insights below borrow liberally from her own.

I tend to see films about sporting or athletic competitions as falling into one of three descending tiers of quality.

In 1981, "Chariots of Fire" transformed the very nature of the genre, by challenging the parameters of what it could be.

In 1979, "Breaking Away" proved both clever and charming by leaning on the strengths of its humorous, empathetic characterization.

And in 2000, "Remember the Titans" featured solidly dependable performers coloring diligently inside the lines, with the best of moral intentions, to get the crowds cheering.

As a film, I'd rank "The Boys in the Boat" within that third tier of "firmly OK."

My mom adored "The Boys in the Boat" as a book, because of its richly detailed profiles of not only our young rowers, but also of their boat, the innovatively engineered Husky Clipper.She nonetheless felt less than thrilled by "The Boys in the Boat" as a movie, because so much of that real-life depth came across as flattened and simplified for the screen, in her view.

I hadn't read "The Boys in the Boat," but I find myself hard-pressed to differ with her assessment, because I could predict so many of this story's plot beats in spite of knowing nothing about the historical events that inspired them.

No one performs poorly in this film. Everyone does exactly what their roles demand of them, and yes, the race sequences should have most folks squirming in their seats with tension (I'll admit, I certainly was).

But at best, it feels like a technically talented band performing a cover of a familiar favorite you've heard countless times before.

With his flinty eyes, crease-lined face and weary rumble of a voice, Joel Edgerton remains impeccable in his performance as UW coach Al Ulbrickson Sr., as yet another guy with more hope or heart than he likes to show off to others, while former cinematic boy messiah Alec Newman, as the remorseful father of one of the young rowers, shines in his all-too-brief appearance.

I did appreciate a genuinely unexpected moment that portrayed a fraternal spirit between two rival coaches, because examples of good sportsmanship should be more common in such films, to show that pouring all your effort into competition is in no way mutually exclusive from behaving like a gentleman.

'Reacher' returns with big dumb fun for everyone

Perhaps surprisingly, my mom has been far more enthusiastic about the second season of "Reacher" on Amazon Prime Video, and even pointed me to a recent article in The New York Times about how many women apparently find the series' ostensibly guy-centric narrative to be just as liberating.

Jack Reacher is a macho pulp novel creation on par with Jason Bourne, as a deliberately rootless man who takes great pains to limit his ties to other people, and even his own past, but who also owes that past for his current level of multifaceted formidability.

Although Reacher is unvaryingly depicted as the "alpha male" in any room he enters, it's worth observing that gigantic actor Alan Ritchson plays him with a minimum of openly aggressive posturing, instead favoring a verbal terseness, interspersed with flashes of wit, that might almost seem puckish, if they weren't so bone-dry.

Reacher treats the women who accompany him on his adventures as equal partners (or at least, more than he does most men), and devoutly maintains a hands-off platonic distance from them, a gap that is closed only if and when those women explicitly and proactively court him, which is one of the few situations that can fluster his otherwise unflappable exterior.

It's especially endearing that Reacher and his best friend Neagley (played by Maria Sten) are so close ironically because neither one cares for excessive physical contact or emotionally demonstrative self-expression. They're a pair of Ron Swansons, content to sit together in silence.

Oh, yeah, and this season of "Reacher" has another conspiracy plot with global ramifications, yadda yadda yadda, which is mostly an excuse to witness how Robert Patrick has evolved from being one of the most aerodynamically sleek human beings who ever existed in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" into being a country western song-style collection of weathered wrinkles who can play boss-level bad guys in his sleep.

Most of us would probably balk at the prospect of actually living as an aimless drifter whose sole permanent possession is a toothbrush, but "Reacher" sure makes it seem fun.

Author Bio

Kirk Boxleitner, Reporter

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Shelton-Mason County Journal & Belfair Herald
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