Kevin Costner and sports go together like cops & donuts. Throughout his long, erratic career, he's always been more earnest in his sports-related films. It's his niche, the one genre where he always seems to bring his A-game, even if not all of them are classics on the level of Field of Dreams or Bull Durham. Like Liam Neeson's latter-day career as a kick-ass action hero, I don't think anyone would complain if Costner spent the rest of his life doing what he does best.
Similarly, it can be argued that nobody is currently cranking out inspirational sports movies as consistently as Disney. Just look at their track recorded over the past several years...Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Miracle, Secretariat, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Invincible, Million Dollar Arm, etc. You gotta admit Disney has the whole based-on-a-true-story thing down pat...reliable, entertaining films which follow the same basic formula and feature likable characters we can identify with. They may not all be classics, but certainly affable enough to entertain all but the most heartless cynics in the audience.
I'm actually surprised it took this long for Costner and Disney to finally hook up. The result of this inevitable pairing, McFarland, USA, doesn't reach the emotional heights of Miracle or Invincible, but comes pretty damned close.
It's 1987. Costner plays Jim White, a football coach who loses his job after an altercation with a smart-ass student and eventually gets hired by the only high school that would take him, located in McFarland, a tiny, predominantly-Hispanic agricultural town. Most of the teenagers living here are destined to join their parents working in the fields picking produce for a living. Though being an assistant football coach doesn't pan-out, White gets to know some of these kids and discovers many of them are actually gifted runners, which gives him the idea to form a cross-country team.
If you've seen even a few of Disney's sports-related films, you can predict what happens next, since McFarland, USA contains nearly every trope which made their previous movies successful:
- A troubled main character no one believes in
- A raggedy band of misfits no one believes in
- The team is initially humiliated by blatantly hateful coaches & competitors
- A level of unity, respect and trust between White and his athletes
- Heartwarming scenes of White bonding with his team
- Heartwarming scenes of White and his supportive family
- The entire team slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with, earning the respect of both the community and their opponents
- That climactic championship moment where everyone's resolve is tested
- Since this is a true story, the obligatory where-are-they-now montage just before the end credits roll
Yeah, it's a virtual checklist, but would you really want it any other way? Sure, inspirational sports movies are a dime-a-dozen, but this type of story never gets old, and nobody currently does it better than Disney. A rock-solid performance by Costner is simply icing on the cake; he hasn't been this laid-back, affable and charming in years. As for his co-stars...Maria Bello (as White's wife) has a thankless role, but the kids who make up his team are all distinctive and interesting, especially Carlos Pratts as Thomas, torn between his family's expectations and the desire to strive for something greater.
Ultimately, it takes a real cynic not to like this movie. There aren't any surprises, but it's skillfully made and pushes all the right emotional buttons the way the best sports films do. Besides, isn't it kinda fun to allow yourself to be shamelessly manipulated like this from time to time? McFarland, USA may not be Disney's greatest sports film (Invincible hold that distinction, in this author's humble opinion), but it's one of their better ones.
- FEATURETTES: "McFarland Reflections" (Costner talks with the real-life Jim White and cross-country team); "Inspiring McFarland" (brief promotional video)
- Music Video: "Juntos" by Juanes
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- Digital HD Copy