Forever Strong



"Based on actual events" though it may be, this inspirational sports drama unfolds in such generic fashion that it feels contrived more often than it rings true. Rugby, a game whose U.S. popularity is on the rise but which is still something of an exotic import, provides the unusual angle in an earnest story of fathers, sons and coaches - and good clean organized violence. Director Ryan Little captures the body-slamming impact of the game but is less adept at navigating the script's melodramatic twists. After its Sept. 26 bow via Crane Movie Co., the film's chief playing field will be the small screen.

Sean Faris ("Never Back Down") lends fitting swagger and simmering rage to the role of Rick, a Flagstaff, Arizona, high school hotshot who learns, the hard way, how to be a team player. His father/rugby coach (Neal McDonough), a meanie of long-stewing resentments, will have nothing to do with Rick after his second DUI lands him a year's detention in Utah. Into the paternal void steps the facility's been-there-done-that administrator (Sean Astin, in a paper-thin, merely functional role) who offers him a chance of early release so he can rejoin his team for the national championships. All Rick has to do is train and play with the ferociously disciplined Highland team, headed by Coach Gelwix (Gary Cole, convincingly wholesome and centered).

By the time Rick gets that early release, he greets it as bad news. Having, predictably, resisted and then embraced Gelwix's tough-love Zen of rugby - lying, cheating and inebriants are verboten, community service encouraged - he has come through a life-changing crucible. He has learned the Haka, a Maori chant and dance that Highland performs before games to proclaim its warrior stance. He has nothing in common with partying former teammates like Lars (Penn Badgley, of "Gossip Girl"); his impasse with his father nears explosion.

Obligatory end-credits photos of the characters' real-life counterparts might have more impact if David Pliler's script didn't rely on boilerplate dialogue and overheated plot points. Taking time to explain the obvious ("It is anybody's game," an announcer helpfully intones when the score is tied), the screenplay leaves the crucial matter of the Haka, with its stirring sense of legacy and brotherhood, rather haphazardly illuminated.