Ultimately a tear-jerker, “The Junction Boys” takes a pivotal fortnight in the life of legendary college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and milks it for little more than melodrama. More focused than ESPN’s first stab at original movies, the Bobby Knight saga “Season on the Brink,” this pic takes a less-known incident and lets it play out on a couple of moral levels; the youngsters learn about commitment and perseverance, and humility and balance become part of Bryant’s mien.
Tom Berenger plays Bryant as expected — a junior Gen. Patton with a foul mouth and worse attitude — and he succeeds in his terseness with no mind for anything but football. He arrives at Texas A&M in 1954, having turned around the football program at Kentucky. Bryant would, of course, become a legend at Alabama; as a starting point, we see Bryant in 1979 flying from Tuscaloosa to College Station, Texas, to attend a 25th reunion of the so-called Junction Boys.
As Bryant voices displeasure over just about everything concerning the Aggies — their play in the prior season, the trainer and assistant coaches — across Texas there’s a new enthusiasm for A&M football, especially among the players and their families. Though none of these composite players’ stories offers much payoff at the end, “Junction” sets up three off-field dynamics: One is planning a November wedding with his fiancee, one struggles in a horrid relationship with his alcoholic father and another has the heavy burden of the eyes of his hometown on his progress.
This key trio — quarterback Skeet Keeler (Fletcher Humphrys), end/tackle Claude Gearheart (Ryan Kwanten) and angry Johnny Haynes (Bernard Curry) — do the usual horsing around and arguing, express feelings of defeat and anguish, yet eventually they see the wisdom in Bryant’s ways. The hell they endure — at the end of 10 days, only 35 of 110 prospects remain — supposedly teaches them a lifelong lesson, one they explain at the reunion.
Mike Robe’s direction is far more intriguing than the predictable script; pic captures well drought-stricken Texas and the pain the players suffer. Smartly, Robe avoids filming any scenes of competition, squarely focusing on the rigors of practice. (There’s a little too much vomiting, though.) Once the emotions need to turn sympathetic toward Bryant, he spins them on a dime.
Steve Dorff’s country-flavored music is so naturally affecting during the setup scenes that it’s a shame all-too-familiar treacly orchestrations take over for more than half the pic.