-- Michael Scott, "The Office"
Varsity Blues has since been eclipsed by the Friday Night Lights stampede, yet this mid '90s football fest does things a bit differently than the serious-minded film and TV series. Sandwiched in between the emotional intensity of Rudy and the Explosions-in-the-Sky driven Friday Night Lights film, Brian Robbins' sports dramedy has managed to carve a place for itself as a lively, slightly satiric imitation of the high school football experience. Packed with its own rundown of then-popular rock tunes and a slew of it-actors that have since to go on to sorted successes, it's still a hell of a lot of fun to get wrapped up in the lighthearted drama thundering both on and off the field.
It takes place in the heart of Texas high-school football country, specifically in the small-town city of West Canaan. The West Canaan Coyotes are led by heartthrob QB Lance Harbor (Paul Walker), a soon-to-be Florida State Seminole who's all but betrothed to lead cheerleader Darcy (Ali Larter), with a medley of supportive players underneath. This includes second-string quarterback Jonathan Moxon (James Van Der Beek), a "football player" only by name who opts to reading Nietzsche and talking higher-brow topics with his girlfriend Jules (Amy Smart) instead of subscribing to the endless nights of brain-dead partying and fame-grabbing as the rest of the team.
Football isn't just a game to the city's citizens, but more like a claim to fame or a religion of sorts -- and their "preacher", if they had one, would be sharp-toothed coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). He ain't exactly the lenient sort of preacher either, but more a hardcore fire-and-brimstone type that demands blood, sweat, and tears of his constituents. Between the town's vehement energy for success and Bud's intolerance for failure, the high-school boys are put through a veritable hell sandwiched between the extremities of praise and villainy over their performance. That becomes the big conflict in Varsity Blues, especially when the less-interested "slacker" Moxon has to grab the bull by the horns and take Lance's spot as head-QB.
'Mox' and Kilmer's scrap becomes the dramatic driving force behind Varsity Blues, a testosterone-fueled pissing contest that build into a struggle for heroism for small-town boys looking for either meal tickets or just to play the game they love. Moxon quickly turns into the voice of reason for the team, easily the beacon of realism in a closed-off world solely driven by the team's success. We get wrapped up both in his enjoyment of the spotlight and his battles with the head coach, as well as the satisfyingly different dynamic between fallen star Lance and Moxon. It's largely because James Van Der Beek and Jon Voight embody their characters as believably as you'd expect from a lesser-than-serious -- with Voight standing out with ferocity as the one-dimensional aging coach. Also, watching Voight twist and manipulate the larger-than-life lineman Billy Bob, played by now-thinner Ron Lester, to a breaking point reflects on a slightly deeper side to the domineering conflict -- as well as the scattered grim points where 11th hour injections are used to deaden pain in the players.
Up until Friday Night Lights hit the screen, Varsity Blues offered one of the better accounts of hard-hitting high-school football action on-screen. Matched with a strong late '90s soundtrack featuring The Offspring, Green Day, and the likes, it gets the energetic autumn tone nailed down with plenty of electricity. It's a good thing that these scenes were handled well, since we spend a large chunk of the picture on the field. Maybe it's because it doesn't stray from having a blast, delivering a good mix of satiric and slapstick laughs amid its bone-crunching football action.
It's also got a vein of sentimentality behind it, reflecting on good times had at sports events where the energy brimming was thick enough to cut with a knife. Though not without issues, namely the hokey handling of Darcy (though forgiven for the "whipped cream" scene) and Jules as girlfriends to the dampened realism due to its caricatures of the players, Varsity Blues finds a satisfying balance between charisma, humor, and middling drama that keeps it entertaining. Yes, it's a bit of a heartthrob showcase for budding stars Van Der Beek, Walker, and the rest of the emerging tween actors, but the swelling hometown energy and earnest heart lying underneath its story more than mask the soapy theatrics.
Video and Audio:
Paramount have presented Varsity Blues in a 1080p AVC encode that does an exceptional job of maintain a film-like presence to its 1.85:1 theatrical showing, adjusted slightly to 1.78:1 here. Whether we're talking about the action on or off the gridiron, everything here looks extremely good. Blistering blues and natural greens dominate the color scheme, with a defined contrast presentation that gives it that sort of "pop" that a lot of flicks around the time exhibited. This'll sound a little strange, but the overall detail of the gridiron scenes, especially the crisp, detailed grass and uniforms, looks great. Flesh tones are mostly accurate and rich, while blasts of other colors -- neons at a strip club, lights draped against a rail of stairs, Darcy's hot red dress -- handle themselves without any overly excessive blooming. A few sequences lean a little too much on the sun-baked look (though they're supposed to) while a few palette shades don't hold quite as much solidity with the camera held stationary, but overall this high-definition comes through as a respectable winner.
We're also rolling along with a Dolby TrueHD track for Varsity Blues that captures the ambiance of the stadium aura exceptionally well. Many of the tackles exhibit plenty of rattling sound, though a little weaker on the LFE than expected. Cheering from the fans wraps around the soundstage rather well, while the music fills the rears enough to keep mood rolling along well. Everything off the field isn't quite as robust, but it still sounds decent. Slight sound effects stretch out across the soundstage well, like the bouncing of a quarter off a table into a shotglass and the spraying of whipped cream, while dialogue manages to steer away from too much garbling of detail -- though it happens once or twice. When the track needs to deliver, it mostly does to satisfying lengths. English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese optional subtitles are available, along with French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital audio options.
Commentary with Director Brian Robbins and Producers:
Largely a fun track, Robbins blends bits of traditional assembly talk with a load of happy reflection on the production of the film. It's a sparse commentary with a bunch of gaps in talk, but discussions about Voight, foreshadowing in the film, and some period-latched talk make it a worthy, fun listen.
Football is a Way of Life (17:47):
Though you'll catch little tidbits like the use of shaving cream and the parallel between the football coordinator being a "coach", you're looking at a making-of featurette that pretty much serves as marketing material. Interviews mix in with clips from the film, featuring director Robbins and actors JAmes Van Der Beek, Paul Walker, Ron Lester, Ali Larter, etc. Probably the best element of the mini-doc was seeing Voight in standard-definition shots, which show that he's even more domineering and believable as coach Kilmer in raw, unedited footage.
QB Game Analysis (15:15, SD MPEG-2):
Football coordinator Mark Ellis and QB Josh McCown get together and discuss the merits of the film's football aspects, focusing mostly on the accuracy and homegrown connection that this flick has on lovers of the game and of high-school sports in general. Many points feature a non-interactive Picture-in-Picture with the two commentating on specific scenes.
Also included are Two-a-Day: The Ellis Way (7:48, SD MPEG-2) which focuses more on football choreographer Mark Ellis and the hiring of Texas football players as the "extras", Billy Bob with No Bacon (4:38, SD MPEG-2) which focuses on Ron Lester's weight loss to lower than 200 lbs (!), and a Theatrical Trailer (2:33, HD AVC).
Better football films have been made since its 1999 heyday, but Varsity Blues still has plenty of football-fuming fun with an underlying earnestness that makes it charming. James Van Der Beek highlights the star-studded youthful cast, while Jon Voight towers well as the dictatorial coach Bud Kilmer. Sure, the drama's a little eyeroll-worthy and all of the relationship-based interaction doesn't cut the mustard, but everything else -- including a slew of exceptionally-built football sequences -- deliver a double-punch of warmth and laughs. Paramount's Blu-ray hits home with fine audio and video properties, while also carrying a solid chunk of special features. Its charismatic chuckle-worthy zest makes it a Recommended high-definition experience of an endearing guilty-pleasure worthy flick.