A truth-based football melodrama that fumbles 50 yards short of the end zone.
If 23 Blast has one thing going for it, it’s sincerity. It’s readily apparent that this inspirational football drama was made by passionate people with good intentions and high spirits, unapologetic about its pure positivity. Set in the small town of Corbin, Kentucky, the film is based on the unbelievable true story of Travis Freeman, a town hero and star high school football player who lost his sight and fought the odds to return to the football field with help from his loved ones. It’s a classic story of perseverance in the face of impossible odds, heartfelt, honest, and full of hope. Sadly, it’s also riddled with so many glaring clichés and unintentionally silly moments you’ll lose count, putting a major damper on what would have been a more poignant movie had it been more skillfully conceived. While first-time filmmaker Dylan Baker and his team fumble 50 yards short of the end zone, they put forth their best effort, and their enthusiasm comes through in the film. That’s worth something, but it doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, it’s an underwhelming, insipid affair.
Playing Freeman is Mark Hapka, who like many of his fellow cast members looks about ten years too old to be in high school, an unintentionally funny throwback to a bygone trend in teen movies. In fact, as a whole 23 Blast would fit right in with the cheesy sports melodramas that were so ubiquitous in the ’90s and replayed on the Disney Channel ad nauseam. It’s got all the trappings: clunky, stilted dialogue; flat, unremarkable cinematography; a rousing recovery montage; a climactic football game that’s decidedly anti-climactic. The most ambitious scene is a dream sequence in which the real Travis Freeman gives a private sermon to Hapka in a church. Freeman is an unquestionably inspirational figure, but the way the scene is executed–with Freeman quite literally preaching to the audience–is a bit uncomfortable and strange.
When Travis loses his sight is when things really starts to feel shaky: It isn’t convincing for a second that he’s blind, as Hapka’s eyes always seem to be focused on something, be it the wall across from him or the foot of his bed. Sometimes, it even looks like he’s looking directly into the eyes of the person he’s talking to (he is). When he starts bumping into furniture and waving his arms around it’s just too much to take, and it unfortunately takes you completely out of the movie. Playing Travis’ troubled best friend Jerry is Bram Hoover, who also co-wrote the script, and Glee alum Max Adler plays a macho “teammate” who’s bullies Travis for being blind (seriously). The two actors are given woefully underwritten parts, but fail to rise to the occasion and make lemonade out of lemons. Alexa Vega plays Travis’ love interest, Ashley, and is the best of the bunch, displaying real tenderness and empathy.
The gap in quality of work between the young actors and the veterans is painfully obvious. Baker, a proven character actor, plays Travis’ father, Larry, with his real-life wife Beck Ann Baker turning in the film’s best performance as Travis’ rehabilitation/motivational coach. In close second is Stephen Lang as the grisly football coach who convinces Travis to rejoin the team, a role he infuses with gravitas and heart. These pros have been around the block and been in their fair share of mediocre movies, and they know how to make the best of what paltry material their given.
Surprisingly, the most intriguing aspect of the film is not Travis’ story, but rather its overtly faith-based overtones. The film doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s set in a devoutly Christian community, portraying its members in a positive light and using their faith as an anchor point. In the current cinema landscape this is actually a courageous thing, as faith-based movies tend to catch their fair share of derision. 23 Blast may not be a good movie, but it’s honest about what it is and doesn’t pander to wider audiences looking for edginess and cynicism. There are people out there who will find inspiration and motivation in Travis’ journey. More power to them.