'Invictus' is just rousing sports entertainment

It's not a stretch to imagine that the Victorian poem "Invictus," written by William Ernest Henley, has long had special appeal for Clint Eastwood. Aspects of the stark lines are in most of Eastwood's memorable films, beginning with his spaghetti westerns ("A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), followed by the "Dirty Harry" series, and also "Kelly's Heroes," "Mystic River," "In the Line of Fire," "Pale Rider,' "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven," "Million Dollar Baby" and, more recently, "Gran Torino."

Henley writes: "Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstances I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My heart is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

Eastwood's iconic character has always been that individual who stands apart, who prevails through strength of will and a refusal to compromise, no matter those who stand in opposition. He thrives in self-imposed isolation, often silently nurtures revenge and finds redemption, however imperfect. This is the persona that John Wayne made unforgettable in "The Searchers." In fact, countless westerns have used as their fulcrum the cowboy who stands apart, who refuses to yield or bend, ever reluctant to leave the clarity of the open range for the corruption of civilization. Not unlike the stoic cowboy in "Hang ' EmHigh," the rebellious urban cop, Harry Callahan, or that old man sitting on his porch in Eastwood's "Gran Torino," looking out at a world that he refuses to understand or tolerate.

However, when Eastwood makes event films that focus on a moment in history — "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Flags of Our Fathers," and now "Invictus" — wherein the narrative is not concerned with the nuances of one or two characters but with a chronological tale that has a foretold conclusion, he seems out of his element. There is a sense of detachment that may be necessary for the sake of the narrative arc, but the result is a film absent individual complexity.

Of course, central to "Invictus" is Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), recently released from prison after 27 years and just elected president of South Africa. Apartheid has been defeated after decades of oppression by the white minority, the Afrikaners. And despite the penetrating and barely controlled rage by the black majority, after years of brutal rule, Mandela understands that if South Africa is to survive as a nation, it must avoid at all cost a prolonged internecine war.

And so, brilliantly, he uses a sporting event, the World Cup rugby challenge, as a means to an end. He encourages and then insists that his nation's team (there is only one black player), the Springboks, led by captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), play on behalf of all of the people of South Africa. And it is Mandela who gives Pienaar the poem "Invictus" before the final match.

Sporting events often are the perfect vehicle to explore the depth and tenacity of the human spirit. There is something perpetually appealing about watching teams engage in a hard-fought battle on the field of play. However briefly, such contests can become a crucible wherein individuals are tested and tempered, involving all who play and all who watch. The focus of such films is athleticism, the game, and ultimately not the individuals who play it. Even if one such individual is Nelson Mandela. Little backstory is offered about Mandela, as is the case with Pienaar. Though both Damon and Freeman give nicely rendered performances, little time is given to their thoughts or their reflections.

That isn't to say that "Invictus" isn't a rousing piece of sports entertainment. It is. How can it not be? Sports is life and life is sports, and then it's a metaphor. And no matter that American audiences will likely have not a clue what the rules of rugby are, or why enormous men huddle in grunting, surging scrums, arms linked, heads bumping, waiting for the ball to pop out. Thankfully, there are those familiar goal posts and goal lines at the ends of the field.

In "Invictus" Eastwood has lifted a moment from history (based on the book, "Playing the Enemy," by John Carlin), one filled with drama and tension, but also one absent the personal intensity he infuses into that singular character who sits in isolation on a porch, kneels in the corner of a boxing ring, stands alone in saloon doorway or walks the hills of San Francisco refusing to accept the world as he finds it, choosing instead to do battle with it and himself.

Old Dogs

"Jump the shark" is a colloquialism used by critics to describe the tipping point in a TV series when it has reached its peak. No matter how hard the writers and producers try, they find that zenith moment when the show was at its best elusive at best.

The term has entered the pop-culture lexicon and is now taken to mean any moment when it's better to let a situation or event go and move on or risk jumping the shark.

When it comes to Hollywood big-screen comedies, taken as whole, the writers have long ago jumped the shark. Most, with big-name actors, are too often drivel, shallow, and a study in moronic storytelling that predictably arrive at the tipping point.

"Old Dogs" is a perfect example. It's slapstick that never approaches comedy, no matter that it has the talented Robin Williams and John Travolta in the leads. The script is one set piece after the next, loosely connected, each inane and silly, each hugely improbable, requiring a grudging suspension of disbelief. For good measure, because Williams and Travolta, owners of a sports company, are in the process of running hard to get a Japanese contract, the movie doesn't miss the opportunity to present the Asian businessmen as stereotypically reserved, gullible and endlessly polite. It's appalling.

Like Robert DeNiro, perhaps Travolta and Williams have entered that realm known as geezerhood, hence the name "Old Dogs," and this really dumb movie is merely setting the table for the sequel to be called "Gramps." Perhaps they're hoping to follow in the footsteps of Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau who starred in the wildly successful comedy "Grumpy Old Men." That movie was the real deal: sharp writing, great acting, wonderful cast and an appealing story. All of which is absent in "Old Dogs."

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