23 Blast movie review: do they play football in Heaven?

23 Blast red light

The clunky script and amateurish performances are not unexpected in the faith-based genre, but its dubious “inspiration” gives even diehard-atheist me pause.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of “faith-based” films

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If I was a faith-based sort of person, I’d be pretty annoyed at the sorts of movies I’m supposed to embrace simply because characters in them pray and stuff. And then 23 Blast would make me extra angry, because not only is it defined primarily by its clunky script and amateurish performances — which is, alas, not unexpected in the faith-based genre — but it also features some dubious instances of “inspiration” that gave even diehard-atheist me pause.

This is the true story of Kentucky high-school footballer Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), who is struck blind literally overnight by an infection that destroys his optic nerve but who ends up playing football again anyway — the title refers to the codename of an on-field strategy– which is one of those things that you would never believe if it didn’t actually happen. (Though it seems some facts have been altered for the film: Travis here is a junior, aged 16 or 17, when he goes blind, but in reality, Travis wasn’t even yet a high-schooler: he was only 12 years old.) Any mention of Jesus is withheld until quite a ways into the story, and so I found myself confounded that this embarassingly clumsy movie is actually getting a theatrical release. (This is an inauspicious directorial debut from actor Dylan Baker [Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, 2 Days in New York], who also appears as Travis’s father.) It starts out as little more than a collection of random gosh-darn yucks, vaudeville-level “comedy,” terrible dialogue — “I’m gonna need you to stay focused” / “I’m focused” / “Okay, you’re focused” — and forced metaphors: Travis has a spiritual vision about football while he’s under anesthesia for surgery attempting to save his sight. It doesn’t feature a Kenny Loggins-style Jesus in white robes passing the pigskin to Travis, but that’s about all that’s missing.

Once the faithy stuff kicks in, the theatrical release is no longer a mystery: the audience for evangelical Christian flicks has shown it cares not one whit for quality as long as their religion gets a nod. But here’s what bothered me on that end. First there’s the sermon at church one Sunday in which the preacher — who knows Travis is there because he addresses the kid directly — evokes blindness as a metaphor for… something: finding yourself, overcoming fear, figuring out what do with your life, something of a vague and all-encompassing nature. It’s possible that this may be merely a dream on Travis’s part, and not something that actually happened; again, the amateurish script by newcomers Bram Hoover (who also appears as Travis’s friend) and Toni Hoover falls down. Dream or not, though, it seems a particularly cruel thing that would motivate Travis — which is, indeed, what it does — to stop feeling sorry for himself by reminding him of what he has lost rather than what he still has. The film finds it joyous. (The preacher is played by the actual grown-up Travis Freeman, who went on to become a pastor, so we can presume he’s okay with this. Which is just plain weird.)

And then there’s the mean dumb kid on the football team who lashes out against the “cripple charity” of letting Travis play, because it’s going to ruin the team’s standing and hence ruin Mean Dumb Kid’s chance at a football scholarship. Mean Dumb Kid is informed that Travis is staying on the team, so Mean Dumb Kid had better make sure Travis can play well… and this is what motivates Mean Dumb Kid to help Travis. Now, I’m pretty sure that when Jesus said, “What you do unto the least of them, you do unto me,” he didn’t also add: “Also too: being kind to those less fortunate than you might benefit you in the end.” Then again, there is a greedy mean streak that runs through today’s evangelical Christianity — the one that sees poverty as a personal moral failing and wealth as a sign that God loves you — so perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising.

I’m sure the real-life Travis Freeman has been an inspiration to many, but this flick doesn’t do him much justice.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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