Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
In the Dark Ages Arthur (Clive Owen) is the Roman commander of a band of Sarmatian warriors who after losing a key battle to the Romans were forced to join the Empire's Special Forces unit and sent to Britain to defend Roman holdings from the encroaching Saxons and the uprising Britons. Some 15 years later the Romans are pulling out but Arthur and his knights are sent on one final mission for the Empire before returning to Rome--rescue a Roman nobleman and his family from the other side of Hadrian's Wall before they get massacred by the Saxons. As with any final mission things don't necessarily go as planned. With the Saxons on their heels Arthur decides to not just rescue the family but hundreds of slaves at the same time--including Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and her mysterious shaman Merlin (Stephen Dillane) who convince Arthur to join the Britons in their fight against the Saxons instead of going home. Arthur balks until he realizes the Roman Empire has crumbled and he has nothing left to go home to. He leads his knights into the Battle of Badon Hill a clash that proved pivotal to the country's future and started Arthur on his path to become king of Britain.
Knights weren't exactly cuddly lovable guys; in fact the Sarmatian warriors were fearless killing machines--a concept the cast of King Arthur clearly grasps. Owen as Arthur is a brave charismatic leader who never lets his knights down. Owen also adds a smidgen of sensuality to the character a quality that draws others to him including his six knights and Guinevere wonderfully portrayed by Knightley. But with the exception of a brief love scene between the two co-stars the film steers clear of romance and Guinevere's attraction to Arthur seems more about the myth than the man. The young Knightley however stands her ground with the testosterone-laden cast and proves she can act fight and look absolutely spectacular in nothing but harnesses and armbands. Judging by the studio promotion you would think Guinevere is the film's main character but she is only introduced some 40 minutes into the film. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud) is slightly less impenetrable than Arthur and Gruffudd crafts this quality in him by showing a little bit of fear every now and then. The actor gives Lancelot a vulnerability that helps to make the character a bit more human.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and co-writer David Franzoni (Gladiator) call this film the "real" story behind the King Arthur mythology and trim away every ounce of the fantasy you associate with the legend in favor of gritty realism. The story as Franzoni tells it is based on an actual half-British Roman commander named Artorius who fought the Saxons in the 5th century. But setting up the people events and the entire history behind King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table takes time--about 40 precious minutes and that doesn't even include the opening scrawl. Not only is it boring it's confusing. King Arthur however picks up steam when it gets to The Final Mission. At this point Knightley's character Guinevere is finally introduced and Fuqua gets to indulge the audience with an epic battle complete with captivating military strategies and intense fight sequences. Fuqua's sets are also impressive especially the replica of Hadrian's Wall complete with massive gates. But the film's noble set designs cannot make up for the lack of character development that plagues this Arthurian tale. As with Gladiator Franzoni is so preoccupied making the characters in King Arthur ferocious that he forgets we need to care about them too.