by Jack Sommersby
Don't go in expecting a masterpiece and you should have a pretty fair time.Youngblood doesn't have a whole lot in the way of intelligence, but it's knowledgeable enough about junior-league hockey and offers up some first-rate sequences on the ice; added to that, it's got a perfectly serviceable star performance from Rob Lowe who looks good on skates and maintains reasonable interest throughout. He plays Dean Youngblood, a natural hockey player from an upstate New York farm community who's been offered a tryout with the Hamilton Mustangs, a Canadian team. He amazes them with his speed and agility but not his fists -- in such a brutal sport where half the entertainment value is in the rough play and brawling, he's out of his element, especially in a league where referees are rather lax in calling penalties on things like that. And he gets a hard lesson during the tryout: he goes up against a Neanderthal of a player (appropriately named Racki, intensely acted by George J. Finn) who challenges him after Dean eludes him and scores a nice goal; going duke-to-duke, he cold-cocks him and Dean falls flat on his face. But he's super-fast and can put the puck in the net, and that's enough to win him a spot on the team for the playoffs, though his teammates are quick to chasten him over his slow fists. The team is made up of mostly farm boys like himself, who love the sport dearly and dream of making it to the pros as opposed to spending their lives working in a mill or a mine; but there's only so much time they've got in this league for there are younger talented players pushing up the line every season. This is what helps gives Youngblood, despite its innumerable cliches, some gravitas. Yes, there are the games, but, except for the championship match, they're not engineered for last-second-in-the-game excitement; the writer and director, Peter Markle, is after something else -- the feel of the game and what it means to the players who've never dreamed of doing anything else with their lives. He's far from a deep thinker, but he is contemplative and believes in his story, and even though there are many familiarities throughout you don't really come down too hard on him over it -- they're simply standard elements that any studio would demand in a mainstream-marketed sports picture. There's the love interest, Jessie (Cynthia Gibb), who also happens to be the daughter of the hard-nosed coach (Ed Lauter); when Dean starts seeing her, he puts him on the bench (which isn't really plausible given how invaluable a player Dean is, but the always-welcome Lauter is so plausible himself in the role, we buy it anyway). There's the best member of the team, Derek (Patrick Swayze), who becomes Dean's best friend, and when he has his big scene where he tells Dean that he hopes to get signed to the biggest, fattest contract while he's in the prime of his life, we know misfortune is just around the corner. And, of course, Racki is picked up by another team and is soon headed for the ultimate square-off with Dean.
"A You-Could-Do-Worse Hockey Picture"
But Youngblood isn't all hockey action; it also has some comedy, though it's mostly confined to the first half. Markle, who also made the appealing ski comedy Hot Dog: The Movie (which also had good action), allows the team members their fair share of horseplay, like when they're in a bar and flirt with women and play some pranks like slipping a pair of dentures into a hottie's Bloody Mary. And there's the libidinous middle-aged landlady who rents rooms to the team; on Dean's first night, she brings tea up merely as a pretense and, dressed in a halter top and short-shorts, quickly seduces him and rides him like a bronco. (Absolutely drained from drink and sex, he's an absolute basket case the next day at practice and almost gets sent back to the sticks.) The movie isn't as funny as the 1977 Paul Newman pic Slap Shot, but how could it in light of the classic roughhouse trio Hanson Brothers who needed nary a reason to sock an opposing player in the jaw even before the game started? And while it had more hockey action, it wasn't as well choreographed as Markle's. Markle isn't really into the kinetic aspects in as much as he's into the balletic grace and movement that goes into maneuvering a puck between opponents bunched in near the goal; often the use of slow-motion in movies like this breaks up the flow of the action, but Markle uses it well and gives the action a seductive feel -- even an extreme close-up of a net in a rack-focus shot has gorgeous texture. What weighs the proceedings down is redundancy and overlength. Markle repeats some ideas and emphasizes things we've already gotten; and when Dean walks off the team after a confrontation with the coach and returns to the farm, the scenes of him carrying out his strenuous chores are just filler material. It is back on the farm, though, that he learns from his older brother and father how to survive on the ice (i.e. fighting), and here things go second-rate Rocky on us, yet not really insultingly so, because, whether we approve or not, it's what's expected of the players -- and, it can be argued, it gives them confidence when facing opponents looking to pummel them up against the walls at every opportunity. Lowe comes off confident in the rink, and he does a lot of his own stunts; it helps lend the kind of verity that an overreliance on a stunt double couldn't achieve. And he and Gibb, who's touching and sexy and possesses a naughty little grin that's all her own, have undeniable chemistry. (You can believe there's something genuine going on between them.) Swayze, too, comes through -- he feels through his line readings, doesn't overdo the machismo, and underplays with confidence and tact. In fact, the whole movie is alarmingly well-cast, with Jim Youngs also a standout as Dean's brother who gets across some lovely shades of regret over a hockey career that might have been. It also helps that Mark Irwin has done some very exquisite lighting. Youngblood may not add up to something grand, but a fair amount of talent went into it, and this elevates it to a watchable-enough level.Hopefully, one day the DVD will be given a long-overdue anamorphic transfer.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7548&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/26/10 11:56:29