Honestly, I didn’t expect much from 23 Blast. “Just another football movie,” I thought. And it’s probably badly done like most sports movies (even the big Hollywood studio ones). There have only been a handful of really great football flicks in my book: Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, and an honorable mention to The Longest Yard. Though 23 Blast doesn’t add a fourth football to my Mount “Rush”more of great sports films, it comes very, very close.
The story follows the life of Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), a high school football player who goes blind after a deadly infection. With a doting mother (Kim Zimmer) who is anxious to help at every turn, Travis enters a state of isolation and depression. But soon, his no-nonsense social worker (Becky Ann Baker) pushes her way into his life, literally, and forces him to deal with the reality of his blindness. So when his football coach suggests that he re-join the team and play blind, Travis must face his biggest fears in order to find out who he really is.
You can see instantly by the story line that this film has great potential: the potential to fail miserably or to succeed wildly. Surprisingly, it rises to the top. A key factor in the film’s success is simply the actor, Mark Hapka. Had he done a poor job, the film would have quickly crossed over into cheesy, motivational, made-for-TV fare. But Hapka surprisingly convinces across the board, at every challenge. His mannerisms as a blind person, his attitudes, his transitions between emotional states, and even his internal struggles are clear and discernible. You can almost see what he’s thinking in moments of reflective silence. It’s fascinating to watch someone portray a blind person so well. Both he and Freeman mentioned their long hours studying and practicing together to get this aspect right. The performances by supporting characters (other than child actors) are also excellent, particularly Steven Lang (Coach Farris), Bram Hoover (Jerry Baker), and Alexa PenaVega (Ashley).
Besides having solid actors on board, the film also succeeds at pacing. The story doesn’t wander off into rabbit trails, but instead includes a great balance of character development, story advancement, relationships between supporting characters, and football action. Because the balance is right, the film never seems to drag, distract or lose our interest. It’s hard to say whether the pacing was honed at the script, directing or editing stage, but most likely it was a combination of all three.
Rather than making a big push to share the Gospel with unbelievers, 23 Blast uses the same evangelism model as The Blind Side. It simply portrays Christians in difficult circumstances and shows how faith impacts their decisions and attitudes. When people witness a difference between their own lives and the lives of believers, Christians often call that “lifestyle evangelism.” Most Christians use lifestyle evangelism in some aspect of their lives, and an audience can experience that in a movie theater as well. No doubt, this gentle approach to evangelism will broaden the film’s reach.
My only issue with the film is the ending. In all good sports films, the team experiences a victory, whether on a national, state or local level. However, this ending is a little bit too unbelievable. I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that I might have done it differently. Inspirational? Yes. Believable? Not so much. Travis Freeman confirmed that the victory scene is fictional and simply said, “I really think that scene … is symbolic of my story, just the victory and the overcoming that I’ve been able to do.”
At the end of the day, 23 Blast still earns high marks and finds a place on my list of football film favorites. It made me laugh, and it helped me see how courage and identity in Christ make a difference in terrifying or high-pressure situations. Be sure to take a trip to the theaters and see this film. It opens in theaters nationwide on October 23.