Distant Replay

by Tom Swift

If you could do it all over again, would you?

That is the question posed in Touchback, a movie I watched last night because, well, I’m a sucker for sports movies in which the good guys win in the end. I will confess to not being aware the film had been made until two minutes before I pressed play. I’m not the only one. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Touchback (2012) made no money and won no awards. It is one of those flicks that audiences who actually see it (no doubt a mix mostly of high schoolers and football fans) generally like and critics find easier to bring down than a tackling dummy. Here the good guy does win and he loses — wins the big game but loses his purpose in life.

Brian Presley plays the role of Murphy, the star high school quarterback with all the trimmings: rugged good looks, a scholarship to his dream school in his back pocket, and the requisite captain of the cheerleading team on his hip. After an injury derails his future, which he imagines unfolding far beyond the limits of his small town, we see Murphy in that future — 20 years hence — living not the life of an NFL star but rather that of a fledgling farmer in the same small town, married to a girl who used to play clarinet in the marching band (the cheerleader ditched him for his best buddy, who is, of course, playing in the pros) and the mother to their two young girls. Murphy is, literally and figuratively, still limping off the field.

They called the movie Touchback, presumably, because “Replay the Down” was a bit too referee-ish. The title is a minor quibble. There are easier targets to hit if one wishes to throw at this movie. For starters, Presley was, at the time of this film 35 years old playing a high school kid. 35! He was almost too old to play an NFLer and here he is walking down the hallway with textbooks under his arm headed to pin a freshman against a locker. He is not the only one who looks out of place. All of the main characters play themselves with a twenty-year swing down. It’s hard to imagine the director, someone named Don Handfield, who also wrote the script and named the coach “Hand” — eye roll –stood back from the camera and said “yeah, this looks like a bunch of high schoolers.” (Handfield’s other movie credits include a handful of other films you also haven’t heard of.)

The most dramatic scene is one in which Murphy attempts to take his own life rather than face the fact that he doesn’t have the money to pay the mortgage, which is long past due (we are shown that foreclosure has already started but nothing more is really said about this.) Murphy thinks his suicide — he does nothing to disguise what would be his cause of death — will allow his wife and kids to cash in his life-insurance policy, which, of course, it won’t. Some of the few critics who bothered to review Touchback called it a mashup of Friday Night Lights and It’s a Wonderful Life, which would be more of a compliment than they mean it to be. Yet, these and other deficiencies and aside, I found this tale worthy of watching (even if I would recommend to a novice to the genre a long list of other sports stories ahead of this one). Kurt Russell, who plays an ethical coach who is true to his town, lends gravitas to the proceedings (even if this was not hardly a performance on par with his Herb Brooks in Miracle). Melanie Lynskey, the clarinet-player-turned wife, who is also 35 in real-life at the time of the film but who pulls off the time-warp scenes with more plausibility, is sweet and strong.

More than any performance, though, the worthiness of the proceedings falls in its universal theme: what happens after you lose your dream. As we all do.

Touchback asks not just whether you would do it all over again (as Murphy does) but also: what do you do in response to that failure that follows?

It’s not at all clear — the movie ends in an affecting scene of his old teammates helping him off the ground — that Murphy has the answer to that question. But good question are enough.