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A baseball version of "Hoosiers" that lacks the magic of the original
on May 20, 2008
I had never heard of this movie before I noticed the DVD at a local store, and I wondered why I hadn't after I read the description on the back cover of the DVD. It seemed that this should be another great `underdog triumphs' sports movie. Well, although there is nothing glaringly wrong with this movie, other than occasional (though admittedly rare) profanity, it simply doesn't come off as magical as it seems it should. While the root-for-the-underdog formula has been used time and again in sports movies, we viewers never seem to tire of it; however, it takes a lot of filmmaking savvy to use the formula well, and that is where this movie falls short.
The title of my review indicates the mood that the filmmakers try to evoke in the opening scenes of the movie in which newly-hired Kent Stock (played by Sean Astin of "Rudy" fame) drives along the rural roads of Iowa on the way to his job as the assistant baseball coach in the town of Norway; along the way we are treated to scenes of barns, fields, and kids playing baseball everywhere Stock goes. That seems just like the opening of "Hoosiers," doesn't it? Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) is driving along the rural roads of Indiana on the way to his new job as head basketball coach in Hickory; along the way we are treated to scenes of barns, fields, and kids playing basketball everywhere he goes. Even the music during these opening scenes is reminiscent of the music in "Hoosiers." And therein lies the major problem with this movie, which is that this opening starts the movie off on the wrong foot: if you are going to evoke "Hoosiers," then you are setting your viewer up to have high expectations for your movie, and you had better deliver. Unfortunately, "The Final Season," while not a bad movie, in no way lives up to such lofty expectations.
The magic in "Hoosiers" comes not so much from the underdog-beats-Goliath sports cliché, but from the relationships between the characters in the movie and the redemption that both Dale and "Shooter" (Dennis Hopper) find in coaching Hickory's basketball team. The makers of "Hoosiers" took the time to develop those relationships onscreen and, thus, viewers truly come to care about the characters. "The Final Season," on the other hand, works almost entirely in clichés, especially in the case of Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe), Norway's legendary head baseball coach, who seems to do little more than offer soundbites of Zen-like baseball wisdom. Van Scoyoc is the tough but wise coach who whips even the players with the worst attitude into respectful winners. Stock is Van Scoyoc's idealistic young apprentice (for all of half a season). While the characters and their situations are different, the relationship between Van Scoyoc and Stock is never developed to the point at which we care about them as much as we do Norman Dale and "Shooter" in "Hoosiers." Polly Hudson (Rachel Leigh Cook) is the foil-turned-love-interest for Stock, just as Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) is for Dale in "Hoosiers." No one in Hickory has much faith in Norman Dale at first, and no one in Norway has much faith in Kent Stock once he is hired to replace Von Scoyoc as the head baseball coach. Of course, there also has to be a player who saves the day for the team: in "Hoosiers" it is Jimmy Chitwood, and in "The Final Season" it is Mitch Akers. There are even town meetings; again, just as in "Hoosiers."
The comparisons could go on and on, but I believe I have made my point. While the individual circumstances of the characters and the situations in the towns are different in each respective movie, it is quite obvious that the makers of "The Final Season" wanted to create a baseball version of "Hoosiers" but fell short of the mark by being too derivative of the movie they were trying to emulate. A major difference between the scenarios in the two movies, both of which are based on true stories, is that the basketball team from Hickory truly was a small-town underdog, while the baseball team from Norway, though Norway is certainly a small town, was actually the Goliath that won championship after championship (a total of 20 before the town's school was closed). While the idea is to show just how wrapped up Norway's identity is with its school's baseball team, just as Hickory's is with its basketball team, this departure from the cliché doesn't generate much sympathy for Norway as an underdog (since a team that has won so many championships can hardly be considered an underdog). Since "The Final Season" is based on a true story, I will have to cut the filmmakers some slack for that, but I won't cut them any slack for their too-obvious and pale imitation of what is probably the greatest sports movie of all time, "Hoosiers," especially since the acting is a bit thin here compared to that classic. Taken on its own merits, "The Final Season" is an okay movie; however, when it is compared to the classic movie that it strives to be, it comes up far short.