Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
23 Blast tells the most improbably, shockingly true story I’ve seen on the big screen. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a high school football star suddenly suffers from a sinus infection spurred by a rare disease that causes irreversible total blindness, forcing him to leave school and his team, only to return later on as a strong moral presence and a newfound member of the team. Yeah, that same old story. Yet despite that admittedly inspiring narrative plucked straight from real life, the story overdoes the sap and confuses the audience with its redeemable message surrounding supporting characters. The film prides itself on a few atypical moments for a sports film that demonstrates togetherness and equality in a shockingly subtle way, and the passion from first-time director Dylan Baker (best known as a character actor from TV shows like The Good Wife and films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) shines through the otherwise trite, predictable developments.
Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka) is a football star alongside his childhood friend, Jerry Baker (Bram Hoover). Jerry is the resident idiot with a heart of gold while Travis seems to be a morally sound, strong individual. He makes for a too perfect protagonist, so the sudden development that he goes blind puts the story on a shocking, abrupt turn. His parents, Larry (Dylan Baker) and Mary (Kim Zimmer), are saddened by the news and cannot fathom how their son’s future will be affected. His football prospects especially, but more importantly his future ability to navigate the world freely. Travis’s girlfriend leaves him when seeing him in his fragile state, leaving his longtime crush Ashley (Alexa PenaVega) with the opportunity to finally spend quality time with him. Coach Farris (Stephen Lang) hates to see Travis’s departure, and begins to realize that he can be utilized in other ways, as both a play caller and eventual player. Other players like Cameron Marshall (Max Adler) have problems with how the Coach and school are going about their treatment of Travis, leading to some schisms as him and Jerry grow distant.
The film is simplistic in its presentation of ideas and often spends too long on scenes that hold relatively little meaning. There’s an exchange in a hospital room between Travis and Jerry that not only lasts too long, but turns into a clichéd montage where they do anything and everything in the hospital that constitute as fun and spontaneous. I genuinely disliked the film when it transpired into that territory. Yet there were surprisingly inventive developments in key scenes, mostly involving women. Take, for instance, a shining moment when Ashley, who was a football player at a pee-wee age with the boys, is forced to help Travis when he cannot cooperate with Jerry and Cameron when they begin training him to be a center. She teaches him patience but, perhaps more importantly, teaches him form and quality football play. It’s rare to see a female character so knowledgeable about sports, and it’s never been more refreshing. Dylan Baker’s film, unfortunately, rarely uses these moments as insight into the world of sports, instead sprinkling elements of faith and teamwork into a narrative that hits every stop on the beaten path. 23 Blast has moments that showcase its potential, but it’s too conventional and safe for its own good.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)