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MOVIE REVIEW : You Don't Need Program to Decipher 'Program'

September 24, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long stretches of "The Program" (citywide) resemble the kind of crunch-and-thud football footage that sells "Sports Illustrated" subscriptions on ESPN. The action is swift and brutal and well-paced--all highlights.

When the action is away from the field, writer-director David Ward and his co-screenwriter, Aaron Latham, are trying for all highlights too, but of a different sort. They want to show how the high-powered world of college athletics has become corrupted by greed and the limelight. They also want to show how innocence--the sheer love of the game--can survive the corruption.

Sports have been used so often in the movies, and in literature, as a microcosm for whatever is supposed to be ailing society that the sport itself often gets short shrift. Whenever a sports film comes along that actually takes the game on its own exuberant terms without a lot of metaphorical curlicues--like Ron Shelton's "White Men Can't Jump," for example--it has an almost cleansing effect. Sports movies are often best when they travel light.

"The Program" (rated R for language) tries to travel light and heavy, and the combination of noggin-banging action and deep-think doesn't gel. Latham, who has previously bestowed upon us the ersatz pop reportage of "Urban Cowboy" and "Perfect," doesn't tunnel very deep into the world of college athletics. What he and Ward come up with is fairly standard stuff that seems derived mostly from old movies.

There's veteran Eastern State University coach Sam Winters (James Caan), who knows when to talk tough to his helmeted brood and when to coddle them. Joe Kane (Craig Sheffer) is the cocky, daredevil quarterback with working-class roots and an uncaring, alcoholic father. Freshman tailback Darnell Jefferson (Omar Epps), recruited from the ghetto, has his eye on campus cutie Autumn (Halle Berry), who is, of course, dating the starting tailback (J. Leon Pridgen II), who is, of course, bound for medical school (i.e. he's really a wimp). Autumn tutors Darnell in his studies and he, in turn, tutors her in the ways of the world.

By the time the Big Game rolls around, we've been put through more subplots than a six-hour mini-series. The commercial calculation behind this film seems to be that in order to have a successful football movie--one that appeals to more than beer-chugging behemoths--you have to cover your investment by attracting just about everybody. If the film had stayed with just one of the stories--Darnell's, say--it might have managed some depth. Instead, we have a gridlock of soap-opera mini-stories: a colliding shallowness.

Movies that come out in favor of winning for winning's sake aren't in particularly high favor in these post-Reagan days. Instead, what we get are hedges. "Searching for Bobby Fischer," for example, told us that winning isn't everything, while, of course, pinning everything on the chess prodigy's ultimate victory. "The Program" tries to have it both ways, too. It shows us the emotional and physical pitfalls of winning--one of the players (Andrew Bryniarski) pumps himself up with so many steroids that he makes Conan seem like Don Knotts--but it also opts for rah-rah uplift.

Just about the only performance that doesn't seem wildly overscaled, or pallid, is Caan's. He's not in the movie a whole lot; his periodic appearances chewing out the squad or smoothing out a scandal are basically a series of cameos. But at least his jaw-clenching and teeth-baring have an old pro's skill and good humor behind them. Caan is the coach in this movie in more ways than one.

'The Program'

James Caan: Coach Winters

Halle Berry: Autumn

Omar Epps Darnell: Jefferson

Craig Sheffer: Joe Kane

A Touchstone Pictures and The Samuel Goldwyn Company presentation released by Touchstone Pictures. Director David S. Ward. Producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Executive producers Duncan Henderson and Tom Rothman. Screenplay by David S. Ward and Aaron Latham. Cinematographer Victor Hammer. Editor Paul Seydor and Kimberly Ray. Costumes Tom Bronson. Music Michel Colombier. Production design Albert Brenner. Art director Carol Winstead Wood. Set designer Harold Fuhrman. Set decorator Kathe Klopp. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language).

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