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'Draft Day': Solid football fare for fans in need of fix

"Draft Day," starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner, hits theaters nationwide Friday. Around The League writers Dan Hanzus and Marc Sessler caught a sneak preview of the film last month.

Dan: Man, we need a good football movie. I mean an actually good football movie. This is America's most popular sport we're talking about, and yet Hollywood hasn't crafted a quality piece of entertainment for the starving masses in decades.

NFL cameos in "Draft Day"


Arian Foster makes his screen debut in "Draft Day," playing running back prospect Ray Jennings. Here are some other NFL figures who make cameos in the movie:

Jon Gruden               *Deion Sanders*
Mike Mayock             *Chris Berman*
Mel Kiper                   *Roger Goodell*
Rich Eisen                  *Ray Lewis*
Jim Brown                 *Bernie Kosar*
Phil Taylor                  *T.J. Ward*
D'Qwell Jackson       *Alex Mack*
Ramses Barden        *Zoltan Mesko*

When entertaining clunkers like "Any Given Sunday" and "Varsity Blues" are commonly placed in the pantheon of gridiron flicks, you know our film industry has failed us. To wit: Our site had a "Greatest Football Movie Ever" bracket last summer in which "Necessary Roughness" was a two-seed. That's a Scott Bakula-Sinbad vehicle, people!

Now we get "Draft Day," a product that's been slickly packaged to appeal directly to you, the National Football League fanatic. What kind of expectations did you have going in, Marc?

Marc: Honestly, my expectations were low.

I'm the same fool who waited decades for the "Star Wars" prequels, building them up internally, only to have "Phantom Menace" land DOA as a comprehensive train wreck starring a talking horse.

I didn't go into "Draft Day" expecting Fellini's "8 1/2." I think it helped.

Dan: Like a Browns fan on actual draft day, I was cautiously optimistic. Though his star has dimmed, Costner is obviously proven in the sports movie genre. Furthermore, it was a huge boon for "Draft Day" director Ivan Reitman to have access to actual NFL team names and likenesses.

Having Costner play Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. adds a dash of verisimilitude that wouldn't exist if Costner's character was running the show for, say, the Ohio Shockers.

What did you think?

Marc: I'd give Draft Day a solid "B." It had its moments.

Full disclosure: I'm a lifelong Browns fan. Reitman paid close attention to Cleveland lore, and I'm sure I saw the story through a different lens because of that. The fruitless path the Browns have walked since returning to the league in '99 was part of the story -- almost a character in itself. That worked.

You mentioned hardcore NFL fanatics. I think they'll have issues with some of the war-room wheeling and dealing; some of the wackier plot points. I can accept "Draft Day" for what it is on the surface: a feel-good Costner sports tale.

Do we need it to be more?

Dan: Have I mentioned this is my favorite thing ... ever? And yes, I'm a little hurt no one asked for my opinion. Jerks.

Marc: That screen grab makes me look like a mezzanine-level Gene Shalit.

Dan: I enjoyed "Draft Day." For a football movie with virtually no actual football being played, it held my attention and included some genuinely nice moments (Arian Foster Pathos Alert!!!). This definitely is not Costner's sports-movie version of "Waterworld." (Note to "Draft Day" folk: You are free to use that sentence in your promotional campaign.)

Here's what worked for me:

» It's easy to forget there was a time back in the early 90s when Costner was the biggest movie star in the world. "Draft Day" reminds us of that top-dog charisma. You totally buy him as an NFL general manager -- Costner carries the whole show with ease. Not sure how many of his contemporaries could do the same. I'm looking at you, Kevin Spacey.

» An early version of the screenplay focused on the Bills. Settling on the hapless Browns was the ideal choice, however. It adds to the feeling that Costner's character is really up against it, well beyond the meddling owner, distrustful coach and irked players.

Here's what didn't:

» Being a die-hard NFL fan can also work against you here. This is a movie where the No. 1 overall pick -- usually reserved for the 2-14 have-nots of the league -- is owned initially by the Seahawks. (In fairness, the screenwriters couldn't predict Seattle's rise to Lombardi glory before the fact.) Elsewhere, Denis Leary (playing the Browns' big-headed coach) flaunts his recent championship pedigree with ... the Cowboys?


» More adventures in disbelief: The incumbent starting quarterback (Tom Welling) trashes his GM's office in a rage. This would never, ever happen unless Ryan Leaf was involved. Leary lights a draft analysis packet on fire and drops it on Costner's desk. Jen Garner co-stars as Costner's love interest and Cleveland's resident capologist. Right.

Marc: OK, here's what worked for me:

» Had it been a raging tire fire, "Draft Day" would have served as just another untimely black eye for a real-life Browns team struggling for dignity. Instead, the filmmakers did their homework, using Cleveland's ingrained heartache as ripe motivation for Costner's urgency to turn things around. That created a surreal mirror image to what's happening in Berea right now.

» I can't watch Costner without thinking THAT'S KEVIN COSTNER, but he was made for this script. From another angle, were he alive, part of me would have loved to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman take on the role. Even better: Jeff Goldblum.

»Jaguars fans will cringe at how their bumbling, sweating front office is portrayed, but the Jacksonville subplot gave "Draft Day" some of its biggest laughs.

And what didn't:

» You hit on the wacky plot turns. Part of me wonders what this film could have been as a stark drama. I'm thinking the NFL's version of "The Insider" meets "Heat" in a rough-and-tumble Man versus Universe storyline shot cinéma vérité style.

» Also, nobody will care but me, but the fired-in-real-life Joe Banner makes a third-act cameo, which took me completely out of the moment. Chop it out, editor-people!

Dan: I think what we're both trying to say is that Around The League endorses "Draft Day" as worthwhile entertainment for the fan in NFL withdrawal. Just check your expectations at the door if you were hoping for a real-life depiction of how the draft process works.

Marc: Right. And I think it succeeds as a something more than just a football film. You don't have to be working up your Mock Draft 8.3 in a basement to get this thing. Despite some of our reservations, I'm certain the less-cynical, 12-year-old me would have melted at "Draft Day." It's worth a look.

In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the guys continue the offseason Roster Reset series by breaking down the NFC West and AFC South.

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