Ryan Little and David Pliler's film reduces the real-life philosophy and achievements of volunteer coach Larry Gelwix, whose Salt Lake City Highland Rugby Club is legendary both for its formidable winning record and its team spirit, to a compendium of inspirational sports-movie/coming of age clichés.
Troubled teen Rick Penning (Sean Faris) has spent his life playing rugby for his taskmaster father's (Neal McDonough) team, the Razorbacks, drowning his feelings that nothing he does is good enough in drugs, alcohol and reckless behavior. His mother (Julie Warner) tries to provide a steadying hand, but after Rick nearly kills his girlfriend in a drunken driving accident, he's made a ward of the court and sent to Wasatch Juvenile Detention Facility. Rick's truculence makes him an outcast, but a sympathetic judge offers a deal: Join Coach Gelwix's (Gary Cole) team, he'll be eligible for early parole and can rest assured that no further charges will be brought against him when he turns 18. Unlike Rick's father, Gelwix stresses the team over the individual, and not just the current roster: Gelwix wants his players to see themselves as part of a continuum that includes every man who ever wore the Highland jersey. He also wants them to play hard but fair and live clean: No liquor, no drugs, no cigarettes, no heavy fooling around with girls. Gelwix teaches his players the Haka, a Maori warrior dance designed to inspire and unite young men in a common purpose, and expects them to reach out beyond themselves by doing community service. Rick balks, but eventually sheds his "me me me" attitude just in time for his release into parental custody. Will he go back to playing for his dad and share the Highlanders' secrets, or has Gelwix taught him that there is no "i" in team?
There's nothing hugely wrong with FOREVER STRONG: It's generally well acted, the rugby scenes are appropriately visceral and its message is unimpeachable. But there's something disheartening about seeing real-life stories and their inevitable complexities put through the Hollywood sausage machine and transformed into bland parables about a privileged, wayward young bucks redeemed by wise, infinitely patient mentors and the self-abnegating spirit of team sports. That's a nice , albeit clichéd tale, and one that Tom Cruise-look-a-like Faris previously essayed in the forgettable mixed martial-arts picture NEVER BACK DOWN (also 2008); without careful career planning, he may find himself trapped in abs-first moral tales.
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