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‘The Program’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 24, 1993

In "The Program," football isn't just a game. It's a a veritable clash of the titans upon which, it seems, the fate of nations must hang. Every Saturday during the season a new page is written, and new heroes emerge to wage war alongside the established stars. It is presented as an enduring saga, as living myth, in which each hit is a jarring thunderclap, every injury career-ending, every inch gained a violent odyssey.

In short, it's enough to make you laugh.

Directed by David S. Ward, "The Program" is a movie that would like to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to write in lightning the brave pursuits of its warriors, who are drawn from the burly ranks of the Eastern State University Fighting Wolves. But while the movie labors to give these fall exploits a sense of Wagnerian grandeur, it also wants to blow the sport out of the water by exposing its dirtiest secrets -- the shady recruiting, the pressure from alumni, the drugs and all the special perks and privileges.

The situation at the beginning of the film is dire. For the past three seasons, the Wolves have failed to get a bowl bid. And Coach Winters (James Caan) is informed by the university president that the alumni are "unhappy." No threats, he says. He just wants Coach to know that if the Wolves don't make it this year, heads will roll.

In the plus column is their star quarterback, Joe Kane (Craig Sheffer), a Heisman Trophy prospect with a tendency toward substance abuse and other self-destructive excesses. Joe justifies his behavior by claiming his teammates expect it of him. He has to have an edge, to be fearless, so that his comrades will follow him into battle.

But Joe is a man with big troubles. Because everyone else in his family is a drunk, he feels he is doomed to mess up. He's a tragic hero, tortured, quixotic and frighteningly unpredictable -- and Sheffer plays him as if he were Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh books, the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the chill of bad fortune.

Rounding out the core group of players are a gonzo middle linebacker named Mack (Duane Davis), who plays football so that he can sign a big pro contract and buy his mother a house, and a super-freak defensive end named Lattimer (Andrew Bryniarski), who is so juiced on steroids that for one contest he paints his face to look like a death mask. Each of the characters has his own foibles, and each of their stories carries its own moral.

But because the film's direction is so muscular and hyperbolic, somehow this all seems incidental. Ward (working from a script he wrote with Aaron Latham) wants to take us inside the huddle, to make us experience the violence and the elation of the game firsthand.

If it weren't for Caan's subtle underplaying, the movie might have been impossible to stomach, but his effortless clowning is a welcome relief from the hard-core pounding we take elsewhere in the film. As Jefferson, a hotshot freshman, Omar Epps has real star presence -- he's as much fun to watch with his helmet on as he is with it off.

As noisy and ludicrous as all this sounds, the movie does have its share of guilty pleasures. Like the kid on steroids, it's revved so high that it's out of control. And just as his coach does, it is possible -- though not easy -- for us to make the best of it.

"The Program" is rated R for language, violence and sexual situations.

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