For Hollywood producers, sports movies are pretty much safe bets to make, with fans of the sport most likely to leave their living-room armchairs and trot over to the multiplex for the big-screen action. But when a fallible but endearing chap is at the movie’s emotional center, some dramatic conflict is assured (Will the boxer take the dive? Will the quarterback help shave points?), thus distracting from the inevitable climax regarding who’s going to win the big game at the last possible second.
Indeed, the sports movie genre seemed to reach maturity during the gritty 1970s. Sylvester Stallone’s sweetly Capra-esque Rocky suggested that “going the distance” was sometimes more important than the goal itself, while Paul Newman’s raunchy Slap Shot skipped the goal entirely in its satiric attack on hockey’s need for bloodlust.
The framework for Crooked Arrows (Freestyle Entertainment; 105 minutes; PG-13; 2012) adheres to the usual formula, with a semi-jerky guy forced to coach a teen team of lacrosse-lovin’ misfits at a Native American reservation. While climbing the dramatic arc, the team actually starts winning—but some previous actions committed by the coach put him in the doghouse, as the players start to lose faith.
OK, so it’s all right out of the sports-movie playbook, at times recalling the path once taken by The Bad News Bears, but that doesn’t mean Crooked Arrows fails as entertainment, either. The familiar ending isn’t nearly as important as the emotional journey itself, plus there are enough new plot wrinkles to maintain viewer interest.
Crooked Arrows already has a lock in sports-movie history as the first mainstream flick devoted to the Native American-created sport of lacrosse, a fast-growing athletic endeavor which tends to have its biggest followers in the Northeast. (You know it’s getting popular when even preschool kids are playing on weekend teams at the local YMCA.) And for locals, the participation of the Onondaga Nation in the moviemaking process assures that it’s all good on the level of authenticity, plus some Nation lacrosse stars are on hand to represent as colorful supporting characters.
The lacrosse sequences are handled with quicksilver efficiency, managing to be bone-crunchingly rugged while not overstepping into the realm of slow-motion ballets that have either enhanced or detracted from (take your pick) too many other sports movies. Yet the sporting scenes wouldn’t matter unless viewers really cared for the characters, which is where Crooked Arrows works best.
Brandon Routh neatly handles the underdoggy attributes of his flawed character, Joe Logan, who runs the Lucky Indian Casino at the Sunaquot Nation, the fictional seventh tribe of the Haudenosaunee. Joe has teamed with a greedy developer named Geyer (Tom Kemp, doing what he can with a no-win role) to expand the casino, which means razing much of the Nation’s land in the process. In the balanced script credited to Todd Baird and Brad Riddell, the Sunaquot elders realize that more money means more opportunities for their people (the construction of the reservation’s school is cited), but they also don’t want their heritage to get bulldozed over in the process.
So Joe’s widowed father Ben (Gil Birmingham), tribal chair of the Sunaquot, will allow his son to proceed with the deal, albeit with the condition that Joe, a former lacrosse star, must coach the Nation’s floundering team to finish out the season. “Restore pride to our people and their game, and to re-examine your spirit,” Ben commands. To which Joe replies, with mild sarcasm, “Can you give me some defined deliverables on that?” Joe doesn’t know his own Sunaquot language, yet he speaks in the impenetrable code of Wall Street wonks.
Joe is a product of mixed parentage, which perhaps explains why he initially seems removed from the Native side of his family (a sign in front of his casino advertises an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, providing another subtle example of his ambivalence), so his “spirit quest” is central to Crooked Arrows’ appeal. It also helps that director Steve Rash, whose career dates back to the 1978 biopic The Buddy Holly Story, accents the scenes involving Joe’s extended Sunaquot family with warmth and good humor. Chipping in worthy moments are Chelsea Ricketts as Joe’s spunky younger sister Nadie, Dennis Ambriz as the movie title’s spiritual mentor who helps the team get back to their roots, and Kanaionstha Betty Deer as the funny grandma who delivers well-timed wisecracks such as, “That’s how I roll, baby!”
In fact, writers Baird and Riddell have crammed their ambitious script with so many intersecting character paths that this movie could have become a sprawling miniseries. Joe Logan, for instance, has a dark secret from his past when he played prep school lacrosse, and his return to the Sunaquot means he’ll become reacquainted with his former teen crush Julie (Crystal Allen), now a teacher at the reservation school—and she’s a single mom raising her son Toby (Jack Vandervelde), who is also on the lacrosse team. Meanwhile, local moviegoers will note the participation of two Mohawk players: Tyler Hill has a fairly sizable role as Nadie’s boyfriend Silverfoot, while beefy Cree Cathers steals every frame he’s in, notably in a locker-room rump-exposing visual. A star is born.
Crooked Arrows is likable family-flick entertainment handled in the old-school manner by director Rash, in which characterizations, storytelling and careful camera compositions trump the flashy, over-edited style found in too many other recent films. When Rash was asked at the Syracuse world premiere if it was easy maintaining a light tone throughout the movie, he simply replied, “It’s kinda what I do. It’s the only way I know how to work. If it’s not fun, then there’s no point in doing it.” In other words, it’s how he rolls, baby.