Because no sport should be deprived the inspirational Hollywood treatment, rugby finally gets a chance to take center screen courtesy of Forever Strong, a based-on-actual-events tale of a punk who, through an unlikely turn of events, winds up playing rugby for the hated rivals of his high school team, which is coached by his demanding father. Not to call into question the veracity of David Pliler’s script, but Ryan Little’s film is twaddle of the first order, offering up tropes from a variety of subgenres – CW-channel teens living the Gossip Girl party lifestyle, CW-channel teens in juvenile prison, tense father-son conflicts, an uplifting athletic narrative – with the usual flash and sizzle one has come to expect from such material. The only new twist provided here is rugby itself, a game which gets next to no national (or, for that matter, local) coverage and, thus, lends the proceedings some moderate novelty. Until, that is, director Little makes clear – by about his second heavily edited rugby match – that he has no interest in elucidating the basic ground rules (much less the finer details) of his chosen sport, thereby sapping his centerpiece competitions of any coherent suspense and unwisely focusing attention back on his story’s cornucopia of clichés.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, Rick Penning (Never Back Down’s Rick Faris) is a rugby star at odds with his coach father (Neal McDonough), the type of creep who orders players to perform cheap shots on opponents and doesn’t shake hands with rival coaches after games. In Forever Strong’s imaginary universe, rugby players are the most good-looking and popular kids around, spending their free time boozing it up with a harem of giggling hotties. This carefree existence, however, comes to a crashing halt for Penning when he decides to drink and drive with his girlfriend after a night of shirtless poolside revelry. After Penning smashes his convertible into a fence, the film provides the image of his girlfriend tangled up in barbed wire like dead meat, though as this is a PG-13 fable rather than a realistic drama, it turns out that she’s okay (save for a scarred cheek), meaning Penning doesn’t go straight to the big house but, instead, is sentenced to serve a year in a juvenile detention center. There, he meets prison ward Marcus (Sean Astin), who takes an interest in his newest charge and, after learning of Penning’s interest in rugby, dangles the promise of an early release if Penning agrees to try out for the famed Highland Rugby squad, whose trademark pre-game ritual is the iconic Maori Haka war dance.
Given that Highland is the arch rival of Penning’s high school team, and that coach Larry Gelwix (Gary Cole) demands that his players uphold the virtues of honesty, integrity and hard work, the arrogant, selfish Penning initially bristles at this plan. Penning rebels against Gelwix and his system (by secretly taking Vicodin), before being convinced by his new teammates – who just aren’t going to give up on him, gosh darn it! – that there’s real substance to their on and off-field activities (which include planting trees at a hospital and visiting with kids in the cancer ward), and that his me-first attitude must be replaced by respect for both himself and others. A few squabbles later, Penning comes around to the idea, realizing that Gelwix’s aim to churn out championship men as well as championship athletes might actually benefit his sorry self. Contrived corniness abounds, right up to the late revelation that Penning’s dad used to play for – and blames a career-ending injury on – Gelwix, which adds further complications to the film’s predetermined path to redemption, familial reconciliation, and athletic glory, all of which is given a superficially snazzy sun-dappled sheen by director Little.
Along the way, Forever Strong refuses to clue us into rugby fundamentals and provides game action shot in shaky, smeary close-ups, thereby turning the matches into displays of confusing movement and noise that are of little consequence. Still, if its sports sequences – which, in the national championship game, also involve the evil plans of Penning’s former friend and teammate Lars (Penn Badgley) – are tiresomely jumbled, they’re no more ineffective than the human drama on display. Though he handles his part with reasonable aplomb, Cole’s caring, levelheaded mentor routine has been done approximately five thousand times before, right down to the maxim-peppered speeches he delivers during workouts and before games. Whereas Cole at least imbues his stock character with a touch of recognizable humanity, Faris does little more than sporadically flash his six-pack abs and display his limited range of overblown glower-grimace-smile expressions, which bear a striking resemblance to those employed by Tom Cruise. They both, however, fare better than McDonough, whose thankless role as the severe, unyielding daddy Penning is so embarrassingly, unbelievably over-the-top cold, it turns the story’s underlying father-son dynamic into a virtual parody of itself.