I always thought that the sports movie must be the toughest type of cinematic genre to get right. Because let's face it, at the end of any rousing, inspirational film about sports we demand that the home team win the big game. Would 'Rocky' have become an Oscar-winning triumph if Rocky had gotten beaten to a pulp and died in the final round? Would 'Hoosiers' have been such a sleeper smash if the Iowa Huskers had bungled that one final winning basket? And would anyone still 'Remember the Titans' if instead of winning, the team had to throw the big game to pay off a gambling debt? Probably not. We love our sports and we love our sports teams, but whatever flaws they may have, there had better be a big redemptive finale or your would-be blockbuster will become just another box office failure littering the back shelves of Blockbuster ('Everybody's All-American,' anyone?).
Given such rigid conventions and the need for a predictable outcome, there isn't much latitude for filmmakers hoping to explore other aspects of America's love affair with sports. That's why 'Friday Night Lights' is so refreshing. It's more akin to dramas like 'All the Right Moves,' 'Any Given Sunday' and 'Jerry Maguire,' all of which deal with life on the gridiron of broken dreams but aren't really "sports movies" in the traditional sense. Gone or seriously muddled in 'Friday Night Lights' are most of the cliches that hamper the more predictable football flicks -- the ragtag band of high school misfits who will come from behind to win the big game, the has-been coach with a dark secret who will get his last shot at glory, and the inevitable small-town love interest who hates football but eventually becomes as big of a cheerleader on the sidelines as at home. Instead, 'Friday Night Lights' depicts a world where there is no black and white, only shades of gray.
Based on H.G. Bissinger's book and inspired by true events, 'Friday Night Lights' chronicles the heavy expectations and intense pressures placed on The Permian High Panthers, a high school football in the economically depressed small town of Odessa, Texas. In Odessa football is king, and failure is not an option -- not only for the racially diverse players but also Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thorton). But when the team loses its star player in the first game of the season, all hope seems lost and the town goes into a tailspin. But miraculously, just when things are at their worst, Coach Gaines is able to pull the team together, and the Panthers make an unlikely run for the state playoffs.
Certainly, that plot description doesn't exactly inspire confidence that 'Friday Night Lights' will be anything more than 'Hoosiers'-lite. But I like the unusual choices director Peter Berg ('Very Bad Things,' 'The Rundown') takes with the material. Though the film has plenty of quick-cut football scenes, Berg uses the sport as a metaphor, a backdrop to the simmering tensions in the town and between the players. He also has a solid eye for casting, with rising stars Lucas Black, Jay Hernandez, and Derek Luke bringing a genuine pathos and urgency to their roles (even if they are a bit too homogeneously good-looking for the same small-town high school), and screenwriters Berg and David Aaron Cohen nicely flesh out the stock characters by giving them realistic family lives and backstories. Casting Billy Bob Thorton is also inspired, bringing an edginess to a somewhat unlikable character (really, has there ever been a coach in one of these movies that isn't a curmudgeon?) that keeps us off-balance.
By the time of the film's inevitable "will they or won't they win the big game" climax, I was wrapped up enough in the characters that I no longer minded that there was little suspense in the outcome. But even this familiar formula is handled adroitly. I won't spoil it for you -- you can probably guess what happens anyway -- but again Berg and Cohen focus more on its effect on the characters and their eventual fates than about winning or losing. These are kids with tough lives, with unreal expectations and futures that, even with a potential scholarship in tow, are no sure thing. 'Friday Night Lights' may not reinvent the sports movie, but it's an above-average example of a genre that has long been far too formulaic.
Universal presents 'Friday Night Lights' in 2.35:1 widescreen, encoded at 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. The source appears identical to the VC-1 encode found on the previous HD DVD, for a virtually indistinguishable transfer.
This is a particularly impressive transfer for considering how rough the film's photographic style is. A considerable amount of the movie was shot with hand-held cameras, which gives the film a grainy, you-are-there cinema verite look, but this transfer handles it quite well. Blacks are solid and contrast is generally excellent; despite many low-lit scenes and clearly visible film grain, there is a nice sense of detail. Sharpness is also above average, which gives the picture considerable depth and clarity. I was also impressed with this transfer's color reproduction; though the film is somewhat drab by design (trust me, Odessa, Texas is not a pretty place to live) and the hues are considerably tweaked in post-production, I noticed no bleed or chroma noise. Fleshtones are also accurate which helps further the film's realistic milieu. All in all, 'Friday Night Lights' looks considerably better than I expected.
I was never particularly taken with the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track found on the HD DVD of 'Friday Night Lights.' Universal has nicely upgraded the film to DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). It's a decent improvement, though the film's sound design remains surprisingly lacking.
With such aggressive camera work on display I expected a more active and enveloping soundtrack to accompany it. The mix is quite front heavy, with the football sequences in particular lacking in power. The rear channels just never come alive -- I was stunned at how little sound emanated from my back speakers when so much action was happening onscreen. The DTS-MA mix offers a slight improvement in pronounced atmosphere, with subtle sounds more noticeable. Low bass and overall dynamic range are opened up, which is the highlight of the mix. Realism is excellent with very spacious mid-range and clean highs. I still wish this mix was more immersive, but 'Friday Night Lights' on Blu-ray is still preferable to the HD DVD.
The HD DVD and DVD versions of 'Friday Night Lights' contained a fair amount of extras, all of which are carried over to this Blu-ray. Video is in 480i/MPEG-2 only.
I quite liked 'Friday Night Lights.' Tough, gritty and focusing more on the human drama behind the game than just the cliches, it's an above-average example of a frequently disreputable genre. The Blu-ray release offers only a nominal upgrade over the previous HD DVD, with the same video, a new high-res audio track, and surprise new supplements. This isn't an essential repurchase for Blu-ray fans, but given the quality of the film, it's well worth checking out.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.