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Zaki's Review: Draft Day

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In my review of 3 Days to Kill last February, I mentioned how the passage of time has let Kevin Costner "leave behind some of the trappings of superstardom." Well, with Draft Day, the Oscar winner's third leading role in four months (meaning I've reviewed more Costner movies in 2014 than in all my years writing online reviews combined), we get to see, conversely, just how much star power he still commands. As directed by Ivan Reitman (from a script by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph), the football dramedy leverages its leading man's instinctive every man-ness to full effect by butting it up against the kind of hard-edged backroom politicking we saw in Moneyball.

Costner plays (fictional) Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr., faced with a raft of stultifying decisions as Draft Day dawns (and which occupies the entire 110-minute runtime). Some of those decisions revolve around the future of his flailing franchise and its seventh round draft pick. Some of them involve his co-worker/girlfriend Ali Parker (Jennifer Garner, admittedly a bit mismatched as a romantic partner for Costner). And some of them are about making peace with his mother Barb (Ellyn Burstyn) and living up to the hallowed legacy of his deceased father, the Browns' former coach (who Sonny Jr. fired, by the way).

It's worth pointing out at this stage of the conversation that I've never followed football. Not one time. Not even a little. I don't like it or dislike it, I just don't particularly care either way. As such, I should most assuredly not have been the audience for a project so steeped in the ins-and-outs of footie arcana. But then, I don't particularly like baseball either, and yet Field of Dreams is my jam. And I can't even channel surf across a golf game without lapsing into a narcoleptic slumber, yet I love Tin Cup unabashedly. I guess what I'm saying is that, if history is our guide, Kevin Costner + (fill in random athletic competition) tends to pay crowd-pleasing dividends.

Luckily for us, Draft Day keeps that trend alive, with Reitman (who credits his positive experience here with prompting him to give up the reins of the Ghostbusters franchise) staging the action in a way that takes a very complex, very "inside" scenario, and spinning it outward into a compelling character story instead of getting us lost in the weeds of wheeling-and-dealing. From the opening moments, with Sonny making a fateful trade that lands his organization the first round draft pick, all the way through to the climactic moment of truth, we feel a genuine investment in how the decision will pan out. Part of this comes from the substantial well of goodwill Costner still draws from, and part of it is from the very able supporting cast.

In addition to Garner, who does well in a thankless "token girl" role, Denis Leary gets some nice moments as head coach Vince Penn, who's feeling squeezed out of his own team's decision-making process even as he's trying to plot the their future on the field. In addition to Leary, the film also boasts solid work from Chadwick Boseman (in his second sports flick in as many years) as a prospective pick, Tom Welling as the Browns' quarterback, and Frank Langella as the team owner (and allow me to geek out for a moment over the fact that Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent, and Perry White from three different Superman  franchises are occupying the same swath of celluloid).

Draft Day isn't the best sports-themed movie ever made, but it's an above-average entry in the field, and a predictably proficient a piece of popcorn entertainment. While some the broad strokes of the story may be fairly easy to call out fairly early on, it packs in enough "what's gonna happen?" suspense to make the eventual third act pay off worth hanging in there for. It also proves yet again why Kevin Costner remains a consummate movie star even this many years after the era when his light arguably shone brightest. We can't help but like Sonny, and it doesn't take much coaxing on the filmmakers' part to make us want to spend one very eventful day with him. B