Eight or nine years ago, the last thing you'd expect to see either Ice Cube or Fred Durst involved in would be a gentle, PG-rated, "based on a true story" family sports movie. Former NWA member and gangsta rap don Cube had been doing films for a while, but was still mostly hanging out in R-rated territory, doing riffs on his vinyl persona. Durst was fronting the metal/rap hybrid Limp Bizkit and providing fodder for music gossips and Eminem.
Well, times have changed. The thrash rap craze came to a quick (and merciful) end, so Durst spent a few years on the fringes of music relevancy before refocusing his attentions to filmmaking, directing the acclaimed independent feature The Education of Charlie Banks. Cube also made periodic forays into music, but further cultivated his film persona, softening into a family-friendly leading man thanks to the Barbershop films and the slapstick family comedies Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet?
So what of The Longshots, the resulting collaboration between these two kinder, gentler badasses? Much to my surprise (and, perhaps, chagrin), it's not a half-bad film--modest, low-key, and charming, though often (if not entirely) predictable.
Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) stars as Jasmine Plummer, a bookish outcast teen who spends most of her time moping for her long-gone, unreliable father. Cube plays her uncle Curtis, aimless and mildly depressed since losing his factory job in their industrial town. The pair are thrown together by Jasmine's mother (Tasha Smith), who needs someone to keep an eye on Jasmine while she works overtime at the town diner; their initial distrust and dislike slowly gives way when Curtis discovers Jasmine has a quarterback's arm and an athlete's instincts. A former football star, he coaches her privately before suggesting she try out for the town's Pop Warner team.
So yes, we have a story of dreams dashed and relationships repaired and love and familial trust, all manifested by sports and struggle and a Big Game. There is plenty in Nick Santora's screenplay that you've seen before (though a few unexpected turns and missed clichés towards its end), but it's done with skill and sensitivity.
Palmer remains a real find--she is convincing not only as a bookworm but as a tomboy, and her relationship with Cube is genuine and believable. He's subtle and understated here, letting his natural bulldog charisma and relaxed delivery do a lot of the job for him. It's a fine performance, and probably the best work he's done in a film since his underappreciated turn in Three Kings. Some fine character actors (particularly Dash Mihok and Matt Craven) lend able support.
The film's major flaw, aside from the inherent "been there, done that" quality of most sports films, is in its dialogue; some feels spontaneous and off-the-cuff, but most of it errs on the side of the obvious. I understand that there's not always room for subtext in a film geared towards younger audiences, but too much of the text is just too on-the-nose for the adults that will watch the film with their kids. The proceedings also get a bit too syrupy in the third act, with the feel-good "clean up the town" montage and subsequent fundraising subplot both detours this reviewer could have done without.
The Longshots gets a handsome 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, nicely showcasing the subdued, autumnal color scheme of cinematographer Conrad W. Hall's photography. The image is crisp and good-looking, and while it's not the most vivid picture you'll run through your player, it's absolutely appropriate to the mellow tone of the film.
The 5.1 audio mix is likewise low-key, with dialogue front and center. There's some nice effects work spread into the surround channels during the football game sequences, and Teddy Castellucci's sharp (if somewhat by-the-numbers) score helps liven things up.
Nothing too inventive here, though there's some concise background material for interested viewers. First up, we have several Deleted Scenes (19:13), available individually or with a "Play All" option; there are a couple of interesting additions, though many are burdened by more painfully expositional dialogue (particularly a poorly-written scene with Jasmine's mom and a diner co-worker).
Next we have the "Jamine Plummer: The Real Longshot" (06:45) and "Making The Longshots" (08:06) featurettes. Both intersperse interviews and clips from the film with behind-the-scenes and premiere footage, with the first emphasizing the real Jasmine (and including interviews with Jasmine and the uncle that provided the inspiration for Cube's character). Both are pretty basic, though the true story elements add a bit more interest than usual.
"A Conversation with Ice Cube" (05:30) and "A Conversation with Director Fred Dusrt" (07:27) are one-on-one interviews with the star and director, again intercut with film footage. There's nothing too inspiring here, and some of the sound bites are heard in the other featurettes, but it is worth noting that Durst comes off as a thoughtful guy and (as in the film) as a serious filmmaker.
Lastly, we have a Theatrical Trailer (02:33) that makes the film look a good deal cornier than it is.
It's awfully hard to hate a film as likable and inoffensive as The Longshots. Stars Cube and Palmer are fun to watch, and Durst shows a sure and mature directorial hand. Flawed though it is, the entire enterprise has a low-key naturalism and conviction that's quite endearing; take this one for a spin and you might be surprised at how much you enjoy it. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.