The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Varsity Blues’

All right, it is “Sports Month” here at the JOE-DOWN, where we will review sports movies. Why? Because it is summer (or close enough to it), and I associate summertime with sports. And to kick off this theme for the month, Joe Brown picked “Varsity Blues.”

The info:

The Movie: “Varsity Blues” (1999)

Starring: James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Paul Walker

Director: Brian Robbins

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A backup quarterback is chosen to lead a Texas football team to victory after the star quarterback is injured.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 40 percent

Our take:

Brown: Welcome to the JOE-DOWN’s first installment of “Sports Month,” which, shockingly, was not spearheaded by yours truly. This is the brainchild of Froemming, and it’s an idea that I love because sports movies are insane. They can be inspiration. They can be funny. But always, they are inaccurate as any movie can be. And as someone who picks movies routinely for the purpose of making Froemming mad, this is a good form of payback. Well played, sir.

And since I get to make the first pick of Sports Month, I decided Texas high school football is the perfect level of crazy to start things off with.

Now, before we make our way to the fictional town of West Caanan, Texas, what possessed you to wanna do Sports Month?

Froemming: To annoy you with my lack of sports knowledge. No, it just popped in my head for a theme for the start of summer. And I really enjoy sports movies, which is strange because I hate watching sports.

So yes, we watched “Varsity Blues,” a film that was wildly popular in 1999 at my high school. And, oddly, this was the first time I ever watched it. Brown, I got to ask, are people really this obsessed over high school football? I mean, the characters in this film literally pray to God for their team to win.

Brown: High school football is certainly popular, but Texas is a whole different beast. You want an idea of that, read “Friday Night Lights.” High school football in Texas is religion.

And right away, we get religious tones in this movie when, after a brief glimpse into Texas football, we meet Mox (Van Der Beek). And in his room is his little brother Kyle who is literally tied to a cross because he’s a bizarre religious zealot. Right away, this movie tells you it’s going to be nuts.

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Froemming: There is one character in this film that I kept writing in my notes about, and that is Billy Bob. It seemed like every force in this guy’s life wanted him to die. Either at his own hand by drinking maple syrup like it was water; by Coach Kilmer (Voight) ignoring his concussions to win at all costs; or his teammates, who encourage him to be a raging alcoholic before he turns 21. In short, Billy Bob is doomed.

Brown: Let’s not jump too far ahead. Let’s set up Billy Bob’s sad existence in this movie first. It’s game day at West Caanan and we have Mox, the backup quarterback; Billy Bob, the burly lineman; Tweeter, the party animal wide receiver. Then, we have the star quarterback, Lance Harbor (Walker), who has a scholarship offer waiting from Florida State. And because we’re in the late 90s and this is a movie from MTV Films (the folks who brought us “Joe’s Apartment”), we get a hyped build-up with Green Day’s “Nice Guys Finish Last.” Between Green Day and James Van Der Beek, the movie certainly shows its 90s-ness.

Froemming: Another constant note of mine was all the damn pop punk in this film, which was wildly popular at the time. At one point, I wrote: I swear if Blink-182’s “Adam’s Song” plays, I’m turning this movie off. I listened to that stuff then, and it has not aged well for me. And this movie mocked my bad music taste of the time by playing it non-stop.

Brown: It’s too bad you’re not a rebel like Mox. Well, kind of a rebel. We see practice for the West Caanan Coyotes, led by Coach Kilmer, who is both a coaching legend and a legendary a-hole. And that clashes with Mox, who cares little for playing for Kilmer. While Lance is running practice on the field, Mox is reading “Slaughterhouse-Five” instead of the playbook. And for the second time in the JOE-DOWN history, we have a rebel reading Kurt Vonnegut. Congrats, Mox, you’re Ren from “Footloose.”

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Froemming: We also see (and it is insane how ahead of its time this film was) Coach Kilmer having a doctor inject cortisone into Lance’s knee. Encouraging drug abuse, covering up concussions and abusing his players for pure victory, how hasn’t Kilmer been hired by the NFL?

Brown: The way West Caanan hides concussions and injuries, I think the NFL took notes.

This all comes to a head during a game when Billy Bob suffers a concussion. And how do they test him? They ask him a question once he wakes up. It has to be a true/false question, though, because Billy Bob is a concussed simpleton.

And because Billy Bob’s brains are scrambled, he PASSES OUT during a play, leaving Lance vulnerable for a big hit that shreds his knee. I get Lance’s football career looks to be over and his knee is destroyed, but can we get medical attention for the lineman who just PASSED OUT?!

All I could think when I saw this was how could any self-respecting hired medical trainer allow Billy Bob to play AND inject Lance’s knee with a painkiller? Cortisone is a thing in the NFL but high school kids? Yeah, your medical career is probably over. Kilmer’s ass would have been canned a long time ago, regardless of whether he’s won two state championships and 22 district titles.

Froemming: At least the school nurse told Billy Bob to stop playing, because it could literally kill him. But, because Billy Bob is not the brightest bulb, he takes medical advice from Kilmer. Even Mox is concerned and thinks Billy Bob shouldn’t be on the field: The guy passed out earlier while in class.

So we have that, and we have poor Lance cut down in his prime, leaving nerdy Mox to take the reins of this team and lead it to victory. And he does, because he apparently has the same arm as Henry from “Rookie of the Year.”

Brown: I’ll be honest: When Billy Bob passed out in class, I wrote down that I thought it was from a diabetic coma. I mean, the kid eats peanut butter-dipped pancakes in his car with his pet pig, Bacon. He chugs syrup so fast the guys from “Super Troopers” would be jealous. He’s a functional drunk that got so wasted in a party we see him throw up in a washer. Billy Bob is a human garbage factory.

But, his coach is a pushy jerk who manipulates his players because winning is that important to him. And I will say: Jon Voight is great as the unlikable, gruff coach.

Froemming: I don’t think it takes a whole lot of “acting” to make Jon Voight an unlikable tool.

So, not only is Mox a great quarterback, he also comes up with his own plays that are, at times, better than Kilmer’s. This whole plot point gave me flashbacks to “The Waterboy,” and was half expecting Kilmer to show off his Roy Orbison tattoo on his butt.

Brown: With Mox taking over the team, this now affects his personal life. He’s now a town celebrity and Lance’s girlfriend Darcy takes an attraction because she thinks that by seducing Mox, she can ride his coattails and get out of West Caanan. Darcy, football recruiting doesn’t work that way. Mox is a senior. If he was going to play football, it’s not going to be anywhere that’ll get him to the NFL.

Plus, Mox has a girlfriend in Jules, Lance’s sister, and she’s more into the guy Mox really is. And that guy, I’m not quite sure who that is. This movie can’t decide if he’s an bright underachiever or a brilliant kid who only plays football because it’s the thing to do. The only true characteristic about Mox is his terrible, terrible Texas accent.

Froemming: His character is uneven. For a guy with that much resentment about football, dating a girl who says she hates football, he sure seems to enjoy playing football.

OK, I want to point out how scummy Darcy is. Lance has just gotten to the hospital, and it looks grim for his football future, and within minutes, she is all over Mox. There are other ways of getting out of a small town. Like, say, moving.

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Brown: Not to mention when she convinces Mox to come over and tries to seduce him with the infamous whipped cream bikini (it’s how she got Lance, we find out), she talks about wanting to escape the town. However, that house seemed awfully nice and Darcy seems like she comes from a well-to-do family. I assume she’s got the means to go to a good college and get out of her little Texas town. But because it’s a teen movie and we have tropes to follow, that isn’t immediately apparent to her.

Froemming: We also see what happens when Mox becomes a small-town celebrity. He is buying a soda at the gas station, and the guy behind the counter just gives him a six-pack of beer for winning the game. He also starts changing from brooding jock to a fully-realized jock, talking like a fully trained PR puppet for the local radiostation. Not to mention, he looks like he is 30 years old in this film, which was something that bugged me throughout.

The cops also seem to give these kids free passes. We find out that West Caanan is a tiny kingdom ruled by concussed teenagers. It must be a nightmare of a town to live in.

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Brown: Yeah, we see Tweeter steal a cop car and suffer no repercussions. Kids are constantly drinking in public. And we have Kyle dressed up like a cult leader and a Nation of Islam member. Minus a human sacrifice or two, West Caanan may as well be the town from “Children of the Corn.” And their David Koresh is Kyle. Man, that kid horrifies me.

Froemming: OK, now when a film introduces a quirky aspect like Kyle being a young Charles Manson, it usually has a reason. THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS KID BEING NUTS IN THIS FILM. It just baffled me. Humerous? Sure, but this isn’t a wacky comedy.

Brown: It’s a problem that a lot of movies have: Quirkiness is not character development. And Kyle is such an irrelevant character that is so distracting because of this weirdness.

A bit of of character development I do like is seeing how much hatred the rest of the team seems to have for the hardass Kilmer. We’ve gone over Mox’s dislike of the man and Billy Bob’s daze of a life because he has to play. We also gets Wendell, the team’s running back who thinks Kilmer is a racist because he won’t let him score touchdowns. He says that every time they’re close to the goal line, Kilmer either runs sweeps with Lance or passes. How is this guy a legend? QB sweeps and passes 10 yards from the end zone? That’s pretty dumb coaching at the high school level.

But, West Caanan is rolling, and to celebrate, Mox takes a few of his teammates to the strip club.

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Froemming: We find out in this scene that their health/sex-ed teacher is also a stripper, because why not at this point? I did enjoy Billy Bob jumping onstage and flashing his moobs at the stripper. Billy Bob: The real-life version of the time Bender from “Futurama” turned into a human, ate and drank all he wanted, and keeled over from a heart attack.

Brown: I allowed my suspension of disbelief to accept that a bunch of high school kids are at a strip club taking shots. I allowed my suspension of disbelief to say “OK, maybe there isn’t another town away from West Caanan where the teacher can make money as a stripper so her students don’t see her naked and get drunk with her.” But my suspension of disbelief WILL NOT let me believe that Billy Bob can jump on a stage, get all up on a naked stripper and take off his own clothes and NOT get (rightfully) pounded on by a strip club bouncer. Forget being hungover for the next game, Billy Bob should be nursing wounds in a hospital. He should be justifiably tazed.

Froemming: And after all this, the guys walk out of the strip club dazed, wasted and baffled from the sunlight. They partied all night! Now, you brought it to my attention that Mox had a watch on him the whole time. How did this happen? Mox, you are not a good leader for your team. A bowling team? Sure. But not for a high-school football team.

Brown: Maybe the watch wasn’t digital? I mean, they’re being educated in Texas. Yes folks, I’m not above cheap shots.

So the next game, the key players are hungover and West Caanan’s perfect season is over. And I loved this scene. The idea of seeing hard-hitting football scenes with AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck” blasting is so cliche, but you see the team sucking. It diverts your expectations and I got a big kick out of it.

You know who didn’t get a kick out of it? Coach Kilmer. Also, Mox’s dad. And in the process of getting chewed out by his old man, we get the most infamous line of this movie.

The only problem I have with this is the dad is chewing out his son for organizing the drinking party and playing like crap. He’s more focused on football than, you know, his son drinking enough tequila to cripple the world’s agave supply.

Froemming: We also find out Billy Bob is having his mid-life crisis at 18 (because if he hits 40, it would a miracle). Mox rushes to find him, and discovers Billy Bob shooting his trophies over the years with a shotgun in a deep depression on the football field. It seems effective, not going to lie. Maybe someday I too could try that. Who am I kidding, I’ve never won a trophy.

Brown: At this point I was fascinated with the idea of this movie getting remade. All these players seem to love football (Mox admits as much), but they all hate playing for Kilmer. Billy Bob thinks of Kilmer as a father figure because football gave him purpose, but now Kilmer is treating him as just some disposable piece instead of a son and that has finally sunk in.

With all this pressure from the coach, I did think how this movie would get made today. Would it be the overbearing coach obsessed with winning at all cost, or would it be an insane parent living vicariously through their kid and ruining his life? You get a little of the latter with Mox and his dad, but the dynamic has changed so much 17 years after this movie was made.

Froemming: Let’s not give Hollywood any more ideas for films to be remade.

Yes, Kilmer ultimately is his own worst enemy. You can bully, beat and dope up your players for so long before they break and turn on you.

Brown: The final game is against Gilmore, the district title is on the line and Kilmer is so obsessed with his own legacy that he must win at any cost. And that comes to a head after Wendell hurts his knee before halftime. Like Lance before him, Kilmer is trying to make the running back get back into the game after a shot of cortisone. But this time, Mox is standing up to the crusty bastard in perfect teenage melodrama.

Froemming: For a high school jock, Mox seems pretty good at making long-winded inspiring speeches that win awards. Yes, Mox stands up to Kilmer, and the team is behind its true leader, the guy who recently replaced Lance after never stepping on the field prior to that.

I liked this scene, the players refuse to go on the field, forcing Kilmer to lose an incredible season out of spite.

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Brown: That scene worked for me until they went back on the field and Lance was the interim coach. LANCE?! A high school kid is going to take over the team? At this point, I shouldn’t question this but where the hell is the adult supervision around this football team? Is there not an assistant coach who can step into a leadership role? So many coaches and school administration folks are getting fired after this game for letting the inmates run the asylum.

And (spoiler alert), West Caanan comes back and wins the game, taking the district title. And in the voice-over, Mox mentions how this was the last football game many of them played. I don’t quite know how Texas football works, but you won a district title… shouldn’t you have a playoff game or something. In Minnesota, there are sections and if you win your section, you are in the state tournament.

Hopefully, they cancelled the rest of the season because someone realized, “Hey, we can’t let teenagers run our damn football team!” But whatever, everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package.

Froemming: Which, for me, didn’t sit with the tone of this movie. It should have just ended with the team refusing to play. But, we get the most cliched ending to a sports/teen drama including the dumb voice-over trick.

Brown: Right down to Tweeter chugging beer in front of everyone on the field. Is there law in this town? Really? No. Being a West Caanan Coyote makes you like Judge Dredd: You ARE the law.

Froemming: Let’s steal that squad car like Tweeter and drive on over to recommendations.

Would You Recommend?

Brown: I had a good time with this movie, and I was honestly amazed that it was a deeper movie than I ever could have envisioned it being. Sure, as far as a teen movie, it doesn’t stray off that beaten path. But the cast was put together well, the story is a lot deeper than I could have envisioned. Truth be told, I kind of want to watch it again.

Froemming: This was a pleasant surprise of a film for me. I had never watched it before, thinking it was probably something I wouldn’t enjoy. I was wrong. I would recommend this, it is an enjoyable movie that hits on topics (concussions, drugs, ect.) in sports that have just really come to light in the past few years.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down: