Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Walter Bernstein
With 2017 (mostly) behind us, and the football season crescendoing to a Super Bowl finish in the coming weeks, I thought it was high time I returned to my Football Movie Marathon, which I started back in the summer. I made some headway, but not much, and unfortunately was forced to abandon it upon the close of 2017 and the deluge of awards worthy films being released. Getting back to these football movies is like a lovely reprieve from the fare I’ve grown accustomed to in recent months. Getting back to older movies, and sports ones at that is like a much needed vacation. Of course this is all considering that the movies I explore in this marathon are actually good. And coming off one good Burt Reynolds football movie (The Longest Yard), it should be easy to assume that another Reynolds football movie would be more of the same. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and Semi-Tough was an all-the-way tough entry back into the marathon.
Semi-Tough plays out more like a buddy comedy than we saw in The Longest Yard, as Reynolds shares the limelight with fellow player Kris Kristofferson. The duo plays for the Miami professional team (nickname not included), with Billy Clyde (Reynolds) as the running back, and Shake (Kristofferson) as the wide receiver. The two like to be the outlaws of the team, having more fun than perhaps they ought to. A kink is thrown into the storyline when we find out they share an apartment with the owner’s daughter, Barbara Jane (Jill Clayburgh). But the three are able to coexist in a platonic atmosphere, until that is Shake and Barbara Jane begin to fall for each other, resulting in their wedding, and potential falling out between them and Billy Clyde as the team works its way to a championship.
My immediate reaction to the film was shocked at just how slight it all felt. Such a strange narrative with a story about these three characters and their relationships with each other with very little drama, tension, or stakes. In many ways it felt like the pilot episode for a sit-com, which left much of the character development to later in the series, as we get a little more and more about each, with evolving stakes in the relationships. As a result, in a feature length film package, Semi-Tough felt a little bit like a joke which literally couldn’t take itself less seriously. And I am all for the funny party movie, or whatever, but it hardly made me laugh, often making me cringe instead, as it appears the filmmakers wished to depict the lewd locker room culture of a pro football team in the 1970s.
I just wasn’t that interested in taking a step into that space, especially in a story devoid of characters worth caring about, or cheering for. I expected more from director Michael Ritchie, who balanced these elements so effectively just a year before in The Bad News Bears. The cast was of no help to the proceedings either, lead by Jill Clayburgh who felt more out of water than anyone else. Barbara Jane was made to be “one of the guys”, but Clayburgh’s performance feels so false and delivered, as though she is a goody too shoes forcing her way into this role. And it shows, painfully. Reynolds and Kristofferson, on the other hand, are just fine. With little to work with in regards to their characters, neither stands out, nor brings the film down.
In terms of the football action, Semi-Tough does very little to push the envelope in how the game is depicted in film. There are very few sequences, and Reynolds and Kristofferson appear athletic, but the football sequences do nothing to really show the speed or physicality of the game. There is nothing memorable from that standpoint, especially since the team’s performance takes a backseat to the love triangle narrative. I think the biggest detractor for me in the whole film was its locker room talk, and its inability to really reckon with how horrible some of these people can be, like Brian Dennehy’s character. It’s not a good look for dumb football players who only care about sports, alcohol and women, taking whatever they can get. It’s particularly awkward given the current culture in 2018. This film did not age well.