Concussion

Concussion is an important movie that will change lives. It will lead some parents to forbid their kids from playing football. It will cause some football players to step away from the game.

Concussion tells the story of retired NFL players whose brain damage has led them to take their own lives. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Pittsburgh medical pathologist, investigates and finds that these players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). When his information is presented to the NFL, it is rebuffed.

This is not new information. News of these suicides has been widely reported. The GQ magazine article that the script is based on ran in 2009. PBS’s Frontline covered the story two years ago. But Concussion is the first presentation of these facts featuring a major Hollywood star. (The 2012 death of NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau is mentioned at the film’s end. News of Frank Gifford’s CTE diagnosis apparently came after the film was finished.)

Despite being too long and failing to provide a big payoff, Concussion offers a few reasons to check it out: Will Smith does a better job with a Nigerian accent than Alec Baldwin does with a Louisiana accent. Character actor David Morse brings a world of gloom to his portrayal of longtime Steelers center Mike Webster. Albert Brooks is wonderful as Omalu’s smartass (but supportive) boss. Omalu enjoys romance with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman he meets in church; she soon becomes his wife.

Will Concussion damage the popularity of the NFL? I don’t think so. Football continues to be the most exciting sport to watch on TV. The combination of grace and violence is compelling. Love of football and teams is well-entrenched in the hearts and souls of millions of Americans.

But any impact Concussion has will be another step that may lead the NFL to do more for player safety now and for players welfare after their careers end. It took many years and tons of evidence before the tobacco industry admitted what we all knew for decades… that smoking kills. Is it time for the NFL to concede that football—in some cases—kills?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the Furnace

Gritty is the best word to describe the setting, the characters and the story in Out of the Furnace. Director Scott Cooper, who struck gold in 2009 with his rookie effort Crazy Heart, falls a bit short with OOTF. He has assembled a strong cast that works hard to tell a revenge story that’s, unfortunately, not unlike other revenge stories.

The Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the rundown town of North Braddock, PA, just a few miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Russell goes to work at the town’s steel mill where his father worked. Rodney wants something different. He seeks it via gambling and bare knuckle fighting.

One night while driving after drinking a few beers, Russell hits another car, killing a kid. He goes to prison for a brief sentence. Rodney, meanwhile, goes to the Iraq war and returns with demons.

When Rodney runs up gambling debts to John (Willem Dafoe), he begs for a chance to earn money in a fight in a backwoods venue run by outlaw Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Harlan is a meth dealer, a killer and an all-around bad egg. The film’s opening scene demonstrates his temper and abusive behavior.

The fight is vicious. Rodney takes the dive he promised, but, as he and John return to town, Harlan and his henchmen block their way and detain them. Russell then plots his course of revenge.

Local police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker) warns Russell against chasing down the culprit on his home turf. When Russell goes after Harlan anyway, the rural cop (who’d been alerted by Barnes) sends him home. Ultimately the showdown occurs back in North Braddock after Russell lures Harlan to town.

Zoe Saldana appears as Russell’s girlfriend. Sam Sheppard has a small role as Russell’s uncle.

Cooper hits several sweet notes in the film, including an effective sequence that cuts back and forth between a deer hunt and a boxing match. And the acting talent he has assembled is impressive. But once the film’s story is established, its outcome is predictable.

Christian Bale again shows his range as an actor in this working class tale. His strong performance may be the best reason to see Out of the Furnace.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher is a good action adventure procedural with a plotline that gets a bit convoluted. But everything works out in the end, with some help from a friend.

This film’s big problem is that it begins with a sniper using a high-powered rifle to take out five individuals. Should its release have been delayed after Newtown? Stay tuned for the blowback.

The sniper sets up in a Pittsburgh parking garage and shoots across the Allegheny River with deadly accuracy. When evidence points to one particular guy, that guy (a former military sniper) writes on a pad, “Get Jack Reacher.” Reacher, played by Tom Cruise, is a former Army policeman with a sketchy background who sets out to find the real killer.

He gets help from the district attorney’s estranged daughter, played by former Bond girl Rosamund Pike. The DA is played by Richard Jenkins, who is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors. The daughter, Helen, claims her law firm wants to represent the alleged perp because her dad intimidates too many suspects into forced confessions. Flimsy reason, but without it, the film would have no blonde babe eye candy.

Reacher and Helen gather info on the victims and analyze the evidence. Meanwhile, they are forced to deal with bad guys who want to take them out of the picture, for reasons to be revealed later. Of course there’s a chase scene and it’s a good one that ends with Reacher’s clever escape.

Based on the alleged perp’s charge card bills, which show large gasoline purchases on weekends, Reacher suspects the guy had been driving to distant shooting ranges. Voila! When he finds the range where the guy shot targets, he gets vital information from and forms a vital association with the guy who runs the range, played by Robert Duvall.

As things get sorted out in the end, Duvall’s character provides an important helping hand and a spark of humor.

Wait, was there something missing in this movie? Yes! There’s no love scene between Cruise and Pike! Not even a kiss! The sexual tension that builds between them throughout the movie remains unfulfilled. Maybe something will happen in Jack Reacher II. (Yes, this feels like the first in a series.)

One more thing: I’ve never thought of Pittsburgh as a cool city. But the Steel Town looks good in this film, as well as in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Dark Knight Rises. But that Iron City Beer still sucks.