As much as I am someone who loves and appreciates a good superhero movie, a fantasy yarn, or a piece of 80s action schlock with Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson, I readily admit to being a sucker for a good sports drama. 'Hoosiers' had me on the edge of my seat. 'Rudy' had me ready to cheer for the underdog. 'Brian's Song' left me with tears welling up in my eyes. I'm a total sap when it comes to watching someone just want to make the team for whatever sport they're playing and then achieve a measure of success beyond anything they hoped. The inspiring true and tragic story of Arkansas native Brandon Burlsworth and his dream of playing for the Arkansas Razorbacks is the material a great sports drama is made from. In 'Greater' the roadmap for a truly fantastic and emotionally rewarding sports drama is there, but much of the sincerity of the story is lost in the minutiae of placating to a target audience.
Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) may not have been one of smartest kids in the classroom, but he was certainly one of the biggest. Nicknamed "Cheesecake" by his older brother Marty (Neal McDonough), the expectations bar for Brandon was set pretty low from the get go. But Brandon had a dream. He saw himself wearing the Arkansas Razorback uniform and taking the field with pride. Through his faith in God and an iron will, Brandon pushed himself to the limits. With his mother Barbara (Leslie Easterbrook) forever encouraging him, Brandon would become the greatest walk-on in college football history helping inspire his teammates to turn around their losing streak and become winners. When Brandon is killed in a freak car accident days before signing a pro contract with the Indianapolis Colts, Marty is left wondering what the purpose of his brother's life was all about as he doubts his own faith in God.
The story of Brandon Burlsworth is certainly an inspiring, albeit tragic one. I still remember that fall 1998 season where the Arkansas Razorbacks went from being the laughing stock of college football to National Championship contenders. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan I vaguely remember the Wolverines taking on the Razorbacks at the Florida Citrus Bowl and having to contend against Burlsworth and the rest of the Razorback defense. It was a brutal game with the Wolverines eventually being able to pull ahead and take home a 45 to 31 victory over the hogs. And later that next year I remember hearing about the unfortunate death of the Razorbacks prized player Brandon Burlsworth in May of 1999. In the following years, the Burlsworth Character Award was created to highlight players who conduct themselves on the field with honor and respect for High School teams across the country. Additionally, in 2010 the NCAA established the Burlsworth Trophy to honor the best player who started his career as a walk-on. On top of that, Brandon's brother Marty established the Burlsworth foundation to provide free eye care to underprivileged children because Brandon himself required glasses in order to play football. To say the least, Brandon's life is one worth celebrating on film.
Unfortunately, 'Greater' is only a mediocre film. While it does an impeccable job of honoring the life and values of Brandon and how important faith was in his day-to-day processes, the film has an irritating tendency to preach to the choir. As with so many films honored with the Faith Friendly White Dove seal of approval, the film bogs down in needless repetitive sermonizing. I say needless because without needing to know any history of Brandon and his family, the film establishes very early on that they're a family of faith and believe in God's grand plan. That's all well and good. It fits historically with the character and it's a strong throughline with the rest of the story about Brandon's accomplishments.
Where the sermonizing gets to be problematic is when the film constantly stops the action to restate what has already been said only with slightly different wording. Added to that shortfall is how Neal McDonough's Marty and his quest to finding meaning and purpose with his Brother's life and God's plan is handled. It's already well established that Marty has a difficult time with faith as the family faced numerous financial issues as well as their alcoholic father played by Michael Parks. There doesn't need to be a Devil surrogate in the form of a shabby farmer played by the wonderful Nick Searcy to "tempt" Marty into renouncing all faith in God. While I love seeing a fierce and angry Nick Searcy whenever and wherever I can, I felt his presence here was unnecessary and like so much of the sermonizing peppered throughout the film - more than a little redundant.
While I may have some story, writing, and structure quibbles with 'Greater,' I would be lying if I said this wasn't an inspiring film that hits you right in the feels. The cast is wonderful here. Christopher Severio is brilliant as Brandon and as a formerly heavy guy who endured his share of bullying it was easy for me to feel Brandon's struggle not to give into self-doubt and find that metal within himself to succeed. Equally impressive is Neal McDonough who delivers one hell of a performance as the older brother saddled with the difficulties of essentially raising his younger brother, caring for his mother while also providing for his own family. So, even though I may not fully align with the film's goals to play to a specific and narrow target audience, I do have to tip my hat to Writer and Director David Hunt and his cowriter Brian Reindl for crafting an emotional and heartfelt tribute to one of the best college football players to ever take the field. I don't usually find myself liking most Faith Friendly movies, but 'Greater is an easy film to recommend - especially to sports drama fans.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA brings 'Greater' to Blu-ray pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc. Housed in a standard Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork, the disc loads to trailers for other Well Go USA releases before arriving at a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. Also included with the disc is a booklet detailing the Burlsworth Character Award and lists the honorees for the 2016 season.
'Greater' is provided a solid 2.35:1 1080p digitally sourced Blu-ray transfer. While the bulk of the film tends to look fantastic, there are a few small issues that routinely plague the overall impressive image quality. While detail levels tend to look great in closeups and midrange shots, distance shots and establishing shots tend to look on the softer side of things. Where you feel like you should be able to see the finer facial features of a character standing not too far into the distance, you can't as they can appear slightly out of focus. Additionally, the scenes involving Marty and his conversations with the Farmer have a softer washed out appearance that loses a lot of close up detail in the process. Even the film's final inspirational shot looks to be too soft as if it was a poorly rendered digital effect. That said, where the transfer looks amazing is when the action is on the field. Details spring to life and colors look bright and healthy with those red Razorback uniforms given plenty of life. Some darker indoor scenes can look a little too dark without much shadow separation, but night game scenes look fantastic. All around this is a very good - if slightly problematic - transfer.
With a strong and sturdy English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, 'Greater' displays some pleasing audio heft. The film is very conversational by nature and dialogue always comes through clean and clear. Where the mix wins some big points is whenever Brandon is out on the field playing or practicing. The crunch of football pads hitting each other and the crash as bodies pile up on the field coupled with the painful grunts and groans of the game sound fantastic as the surround channels spring to life. Scoring, sound effects, dialogue, and atmospherics work well with decent layering and separation to provide a strong sense of space and atmosphere. The track may not fully be immersive, but it does a great job of providing a realistic sense of what it's like to get run over after the ball is snapped.
Audio Commentary: Writer/Director David Hunt and Producer/Writer Brian Reindel provide an engaging and interesting commentary track. A lot of the story qualms I had are explained here as they understand the market demographic they're aiming for as well as trying to pay tribute to Brandon's memory and accomplishments.
Finished Deleted Scenes: (HD 8:30) This is some pretty rudimentary understandably deleted material. Whether because it was cut for time or not, these scenes aren't altogether missed.
Unfinished Deleted Scenes: (HD 4:45) These are more like outtakes and scene extensions that weren't color corrected or properly looped in post-production. Again, nothing too earth-shatteringly new here.
Blooper Reel: (HD 6:43) I don't tend to enjoy blooper reels because so often they feel staged these days, but there are some genuinely funny bits here.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:32)
'Greater' could have easily been one of the greatest sports dramas ever committed to film (or digital medium). The life and story of Brandon Burlsworth is truly an inspirational one and one to be honored and respected. Through some heavy-handed and redundant sermonizing, a great film merely becomes a very good one. If the filmmakers hadn't simply shot for a base target audience and let the character and thematic complexities come through naturally, I feel like 'Greater' could have been a competitive and successful piece of summertime counter programming in the face of so many stale and uninspired remakes and sequels. As it stands, it's a good and worthwhile film, but not one to be considered truly amazing. Well Go USA does a great job of bringing this film to Blu-ray with a solid A/V presentation and a decent assortment of extra bonus features to pick through. At the end of the day, I'm calling this one recommended. Even if you're not on the Faith Friendly bandwagon, 'Greater' is certainly an enjoyable worthwhile film to add to you watch list.