Set in the ultra-competitive world of modern college football, this modest sports drama makes up in honesty what it may lack in originality, and is boosted by genuinely exciting game sequences.
Facing unemployment after two indifferent seasons in a row, fictional Eastern State University football Coach Winters (James Caan) is under pressure to bend his personal ethics to make the coming season a winner. Recruiting black high school tailback phenomenon Darnell Jefferson (Omar Epps),
Winters promises him a first-rate education as a ticket out of his North Philadelphia ghetto, while knowing that academic pursuits will run a distant second to football in Jefferson's college career. On campus, Winters has to pretend not to notice while his star quarterback Joe Kane (Craig
Sheffer) unravels under the pressure of a publicity blitz mounted by the school to promote him for the Heisman Trophy. To blow off steam, Kane leads teammates in such stunts as lying down at night on the center line of a busy street. He later gets involved in a bar-room brawl that results in his
suspension, endangering the team's chances.
Salvation of sorts appears in the form of defensive tackle Lattimer (Andrew Brnyiarski). The problem is that Lattimer owes much of his agressiveness and strength to steroids that also get him in trouble, when, in a fit of "roid rage," he beats up a coed while attempting to rape her. Before
Winters can drop Lattimer from the team, the victim, the daughter of an alumni contributor, drops the charges. Winters reluctantly allows Lattimer to stay, provided he quits the steroids--but then looks the other way after realizing that, without Lattimer's chemical muscle, the team hasn't a
chance. With the dust from these and other crises settled, Winters manages to hang on for one more season, and is last seen surveying yet another crop of potential program fodder.
THE PROGRAM boasts a sharp, if overly busy, script by journalist/screenwriter Aaron Latham (URBAN COWBOY), and is well acted by a capable cast that includes Kristy Swanson (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) as a coed jock who helps Kane overcome his problems. Director David S. Ward (MAJOR LEAGUE) steers
a steady course between hard-bitten expose and gridiron uplift, placing an almost Hawksian emphasis on professionalism as a measure of personal worth. Interestingly, the film shows bravery to be often a matter of restraint, discretion, or even compromise. Winters takes a hard line with his
players, but he also makes constant concessions, both personal and professional, in the interests of keeping the team viable--an uncommonly mature outlook for a mainstream sports movie. THE PROGRAM is equally untypical in its even-handed character portrayals: Darnell's buppie-ish, on-and off-field
competitor is as fully fleshed out as Darnell himself; and even Lattimer, the closest the film has to a villain, redeems himself--ironically--by reverting to steroid use, an act of self-sacrifice that will cost him his career, but without which the team has no hopes of winning.
THE PROGRAM was a surprisingly thoughtful entry in a season glutted with sports films. (Late 1993 and early '94 also saw the release of RUDY; BLUE CHIPS; THE AIR UP THERE; ABOVE THE RIM; D2; and MAJOR LEAGUE 2.) The game sequences, in particular, are deftly choreographed and charged with a real
sense of drama. The film earned some unanticipated extra publicity when American youths began performing Kane's lying-down-in-the-road stunt for real; after the death of one young man, the sequence in question was deleted from release prints of the picture. (Violence, substance abuse, adultsituations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: Set in the ultra-competitive world of modern college football, this modest sports drama makes up in honesty what it may lack in originality, and is boosted by genuinely exciting game sequences. Facing unemployment after two indifferent seasons in a row,… (more)