January 3, 2012

The influence of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films may be much more devious than we ever expected. There is a bad, bad lesson that other filmmakers seem to have learned from the Rocky saga, and it is this: You give ’em the same thing over and over again, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

The Rocky films became formalized long ago, so that there is no longer any sense of invention in them. It’s pure ritual, like the stations of the cross. In other words, there’s barely any movie left—more like a string of recognizable and reassuring sensations.

This theory of filmmaking is becoming more and more common. In recent years, we’ve seen a score of films in which an individual fights the odds to achieve a victory, often in athletic tournaments. Nothing wrong with that story, but the movies themselves seemed to discard any notion of originality; and the success of the narrative shorthand of Flashdance fueled the movement toward superficiality and non-narrative.

All of which leads us to the latest in this unwelcome hybrid, Youngblood, a film so unoriginal and inoffensive that it hardly seems to exist at all, even while you’re watching it. Youngblood has major studio production values, and it’s cleanly and professionally edited and photographed. Even the acting isn’t bad, although Rob Lowe gets less interesting with each film he makes.

But there isn’t a single memorable instant in the film. It’s all by rote, and cynically includes every cliché in the playbook.

This kid (Lowe), who labors on his dad’s farm in upstate New York, gets a tryout with the junior league hockey team in Hamilton, Canada. The kid has a tough time in the tryout, being knocked down by a particularly vicious rival, but he gets the position.

Lowe’s problem is this: He’s fast, but is he tough enough? Something tells me he will wrestle with this problem, then have to prove himself in the last second of the championship game.

Something also tells me he will have to prove himself in a drinking session with his teammates, and then develop a friendship with the team leader, who turns out to be a real nice guy, in an inarticulate kind of way. And, furthermore, something tells me he will avail himself of the lusty charms of his oversexed landlady, but then fall for the cute girl he meets coming out of Slumber Party Massacre (really).

But something tells me she’s going to turn out to be the coach’s daughter. However, something also tells me that eventually Lowe is going to win the respect of the hardnosed coach.

Miraculously, all of these hunches (and more) are proven right during Youngblood. Director-writer Peter Markle (Mr. Hot Dog…The Movie himself) makes dead certain every predictable plot point is in place, and guides the proceedings with the proper eye for shots that can later be lifted to fashion a nice music video.

Against the odds, some of the supporting players do professional work. Cynthia Gibbs is the warm-eyed girl, Ed Lauter is the hawk-eyed coach, and Patrick Swayze (Red Dawn) actually gives a little life to that nice-if-inarticulate guy. They all deserve better than this.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

Keanu Reeves was in the movie too, the same year as River’s Edge. Youngblood is a terrible picture, although I might give it the nod, barely, over Oxford Blues, when it comes to really rotten Rob Lowe movies.