Whatever marquee allure Ice Cube established in the family-entertainment market with “Are We There Yet?” and “Are We Done Yet?” will be sorely tested by “The Longshots,” an inspirational sports drama that likely won’t score until it reaches the homevid playoffs. A surprisingly tepid directorial effort by Limp Bizkit nu-metal rocker Fred Durst, pic seldom deviates from the genre-cliche playbook while recounting the plucky efforts of a small-town 11-year-old (Keke Palmer, “Akeelah and the Bee”) who’s coached by her uncle (Cube) to become the first girl to compete in the Pop Warner national football championship.
Although “inspired by a true story,” “The Longshots” unwinds like the most formulaic of fiction while charting the progress of its two central characters.
Curtis Plummer (Cube), a former high school star whose promise faded when he blew out his knee, yearns to move somewhere, anywhere, to get away from bad memories and minimal prospects in his economically-strapped Illinois town. But he finds a shot at redemption in his own backyard — or, more specifically, the backyard of his hard-working sister (Tasha Smith) — when he notices Jasmine (Palmer), his young niece, has raw talent for passing the pigskin.
What happens next is so predictable, scriptwriter Nick Santora seems to have simply given helmer Durst (in a mainstream follow-up to his well-received indie debut, “The Education of Charlie Banks”) a checklist of plot points to dutifully tick off. Jasmine overcomes initial reluctance and/or hostility of coaches and fellow players? Yep. Chronically losing team starts winning again with Jasmine as quarterback? Done. Spiritually uplifted townspeople rally around their local team? Ditto. Ne’er-do-well absent father returns to bask in Jasmine’s glory? You got it.
Cube and Palmer show engaging sincerity and impeccable professionalism while going through familiar paces. And the climax provides a welcome touch of realism that recalls the original “Rocky.”
Even so, while “The Longshots” is by no means an unpleasant experience, it feels like a project carried out by people who began with the best of intentions but weren’t quite able to sustain their initial enthusiasm. When Curtis announces he’s been offered a coaching job in another city, this late development is introduced and disposed of so quickly, aud is left with the impression that everyone involved just wanted to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
Filmed on location mostly in Minden, La. (near Shreveport, where the climactic Pop Warner game was shot), pic relies heavily on ace lenser Conrad W. Hall to convey the drab, dreary atmosphere of a downtrodden small town in need of a spark of hope.