Director/co-writer David S. Ward (“Major League”) may find baseball has been better to him than football, as the signals get crossed in this all-over-the-field sports drama. Attractive leads and the subject matter may generate some interest from gridiron enthusiasts, but Disney still doesn’t figure to light up the box office scoreboard much with this recruit.
“The Program” starts in a fourth-down situation by being a sports movie with virtually no one for whom the audience can root — a major drawback, no matter how hackneyed those “Rocky”-ized finishes have become. Instead, Ward and co-writer Aaron Latham seek to indict big-time college football through a collection of cliches (money-doling boosters, steroid abuse, academic negligence , shady recruiting practices) and still want us to care about whether these players and coaches win the big game.
The action centers around fictitious Eastern State U., whose coach (James Caan, top-billed in a relatively minor role) is coming off two subpar seasons and feeling the heat to turn things around.
In addition to a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback in Joe Kane (Craig Sheffer), ESU lands a promising young small-town running back (Omar Epps, from “Juice”) with his sights set on a starting job.
Pursuing those players’ romantic liaisons (with Kristy Swanson and Halle Berry, respectively) as a soapy sidebar to all the bashing and crunching, “The Program” doesn’t develop either part of the story very well; indeed, those two facets keep colliding off each other, diffusing the football angle and any concern as to how ol’ ESU performs on the field.
Although he’s supposed to engender sympathy as the son of an uncaring alcoholic, Joe comes off as a self-centered boor so reckless it’s hard to understand why Camille (Swanson, last seen skewering the undead in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) puts up with him, while the pompous Darnell (Epps) isn’t particularly endearing, either.
The strongest characters toil in smaller roles, particularly Duane Davis as a bruising linebacker intent on making the pros and Andrew Bryniarski as a steroid-injecting behemoth who personifies the danger of a win-at-all-costs mentality.
Yet if there’s an alternative to that approach, you won’t find it here, with Caan’s gruff coach clearly willing to look the other way at any excess short of murder as long as it keeps him in his job. That may make for good copy in a Sports Illustrated expose, but watching the team’s various offenses doesn’t spur much support.
The football scenes themselves prove reasonably convincing, although the use of slow-motion is far too extensive, robbing the sport of its collision-oriented excitement and speed.
Most of the focus is on Sheffer, whose character is too enigmatic, while Epps , Berry and Swanson gamely try to pull for extra dramatic yardage but can’t do much with their underwritten roles.
Interestingly, several real college powers lent their monikers and uniforms to this unflattering portrait, which from that perspective most closely resembles the basketball-themed 1977 Robby Benson starrer “One on One.”
Aside from the slo-mo woes, technical crew and cast convincingly capture the football scenes and college environs.