The film’s prologue informs us that the sport of sculling captured the nation’s attention long before baseball or football came along. We’re told that this activity created a national obsession with much the same pitfalls of modern sports. Somehow I can’t imagine, in this age of sports bars and ESPN, that rowing would demand the attention this boast assumes. I don’t remember my grandfather or great grandfather for that matter reminiscing about some great rowing move he witnessed with his dad as a child. The film al…o reports that the events are based on the true story of rowing legend Ned Hanlon. If any of this is true, it appears the more things change the more they truly do remain the same. The same slimy agents and event fixing have been represented as well as the heroes who came from nothing.
The film is an obscure 1986 effort, notable only as an early role for Nicolas Cage. He wears the part well. In fact, the film features a rather fine cast that includes Christopher Plummer and David Naughton in fitting roles. The real problem is, there isn’t all that much to work with here. None of the parts allows the fine acting to be showcased. The film uses too much time with rowing scenes that offer no variety from one to another. There’s a reason rowing doesn’t command huge network contracts or even much cable coverage. It might be very exciting to participate in these events, but there is nothing at all engaging as an observer. The plot is familiar: Unlikely hero battles incredible odds and triumphs in the big event. Still there is no eye of the tiger here. More like eye of the tiger beetle. An inspiring story with no inspiration.
You have your choice of a full frame version found on the A side or a 1.85:1 theatrical release version on the flip side of the disc. For obvious reasons I chose the wide version. Colors and contrast are quite subdued, perhaps as an intentional style statement. It’s common for filmmakers to use a washed out effect for period pieces like this one. Grain comes and goes, but it is never oppressive enough to distract you from the film. Black levels are about average, at times spoiled by excessive compression artifact, the product of a poor 4-5 mbps bit rate.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track does a more than adequate job of presenting you with the dialogue in the film. Musical cues are rare and mostly subdued. The notable exception is an out of place synth score during the more dramatic race scenes. It hardly seems right that these 80’s tones destroy the illusion of a piece set in 1886. Overall the sound is clean, just not very dynamic.
I guess I might be a little jaded. Perhaps the “against all odds” theme has been done to death. Either way, it has certainly been done with more interesting results than in The Boy In Blue. Rocky this ain’t. Truth be told, there just isn’t enough to hold your interest. The story might have some appeal if it were more engaging on a script level. Unless you’re a die hard fan of the sport, you’ll want to pass on this one. While it has all the clichés of a Disney feel-good film, it has none of the heart. It has the look and feel of a 1970’s movie of the week, and that’s “not necessarily rolling in clover”.