McConaughey runs roughshod over football flick. 

Matthew McConaughey is capable of being great or terrible depending on the situation. His expanded cameo as oblivious post-high-school hanger-on Wooderson in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused is the stuff of legend -- easily one of the most memorable movie performances of the past 15 years. McConaughey was also amazing as gonzo American warrior Denton Van Zan in the dragon-fighting 2002 B-movie gem Reign of Fire, devouring scenery and throwing-down with Brit rival Christian Bale.

But McConaughey is lost when asked to play an intellectual or character with any sense of sobriety. His "spiritual adviser" in Contact opposite (and I do mean opposite) Jodie Foster was as laughable as his Wooderson was hilarious, and McConaughey seemed totally out of place as an early-American Yankee lawyer in Steven Spielberg's Amistad.

As college football coach Jack Lengyel in We Are Marshall, McConaughey makes a typically strong impression, but it's a performance that's hard to locate on the actor's continuum of the magnificent and the mortifying. Certainly, McConaughey has the enthusiasm and physicality to play a young college football coach, but his performance is so squirrelly that it tends to run roughshod over the rest of the movie.

We Are Marshall is, if not an underdog gem à la Invincible, at least a cut above such recent sports flicks as Gridiron Gang and Glory Road. Too often, these minor sports movies feel cheap. Glory Road looked like it was a made-for-ESPN movie, not something that should have been on the big screen. We Are Marshall is more substantial.

The movie is about Marshall University, a small Division 1 school in West Virginia where, in 1970, on the way home from a game against East Carolina, the team's plane crashed, killing the 75 players, coaches, announcers, boosters, and other friends of the program on board. The only members of the team left were four injured players who stayed back in Huntington and an offensive coordinator who stayed in Carolina for recruiting visits.

We Are Marshall opens the night of the crash and then focuses on the decision to keep the program the following season, rebuilding with a new coach and hodgepodge group of underprepared new players.

This isn't about football, the college president tells Lengyel, it's about what happened to the town. That's one moral. The other, which Lengyel tells his lone holdover from the previous season's staff, is that the old axiom "Winning is everything" no longer applies. "Not here, not now," Lengyel says. "What matters is that we play."

Unfortunately, We Are Marshall -- directed by studio pro McG -- doesn't take either of these lessons to heart. The film becomes more of a pro-forma football flick than an examination of those left behind. And, of course, it ends with victory on the field -- not just in the heart, but on the scoreboard.

Far more moving than any of the big speeches, big plays, or big moments is a simple black-and-white photo which scrolls by in the closing credits along with several others, of a Huntington, West Virginia, movie theater marquee after the crash: "The Lord Giveth, The Lord Taketh Away."

We Are Marshall

Opening Friday, December 22nd

Multiple locations

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