The most surprising thing about The Greatest Game Ever Played isn't the outcome of the titular event, the 1913 U.S. Open in which an unknown American golfer named Francis Ouimet squared off against British golf champion Harry Vardon. No, what's really unexpected is that the film actually has us rooting for both players. As Ouimet, Shia LaBeouf is unquestionably the star of the picture, but Stephen Dillane's Vardon is equally likeable. Far from engaging in such time-honored sports-movie traditions as trash-talking or pre-match fisticuffs, these two competitors treat each other with courtesy and respect. You would think that their lack of conflict would rob the climactic game of its suspense, but it actually heightens the tension. Instead of a routine confrontation between a good guy and a bad guy, we are presented with a battle of wits and skill between a pair of evenly matched players. By taking this approach, the filmmakers pull off a remarkable feat-they actually make golf seem exciting.

All joking aside, even the most avid golf fan would have to concede that it isn't the most cinematic of sports. After all, golf is primarily a mental rather than a physical game and movies understandably have an easier time depicting the latter. At times, Greatest Game director Bill Paxton tries too hard to give the film's golf sequences a "Wow" factor. He can't resist throwing in a number of computer-assisted shots from the ball's point of view, for example. In the movie's most unnecessary scene, a CGI-ladybug buzzes into the frame and lands on a golf ball just as a golfer tees off. The poor insect survives, although it flies away in a bit of a daze. This bit of business may wring some laughter out of the kids in the audience, but it feels out of place in what is otherwise a more serious story.

That's not to say that the film completely lacks a sense of humor. Most of the genuine laughs come courtesy of Josh Flitter, who plays Ouimet's diminutive young caddy Eddie. A smart-aleck kid in the tradition of Jackie Cooper (or, to use a more contemporary reference, Frankie Muniz), Eddie provides his boss with plenty of comic relief and sound advice. Ouimet needs someone like that too, because almost everyone else around him expects and even hopes for him to fail. The golfing establishment looks down on him because he comes from a poor family, and his own father (Elias Koteas), a hard-working immigrant, regularly chides his son for wasting his time on a silly game. Ouimet's background is actually one of the reasons Vardon comes to feel for his opponent. Like Ouimet, Vardon was born into poverty and as a result he's never been able to truly win the respect of his wealthier peers, no matter how many trophies he accumulates. In a way, it doesn't really matter which man wins the final match. What's more important is that they've proven that golf isn't just a sport for bluebloods.

In style and tone, The Greatest Game Ever Told is a determinedly old-fashioned family film, which means that it's also an easy target to poke fun at. The first half-hour in particular is filled with eye-rolling moments, as Paxton and screenwriter Mark Frost (who wrote the book that the movie is based on) run through almost every sports-movie cliché in the playbook, right down to the requisite training montage. But then the Open starts and the movie improves significantly, although it's still burdened by several cheesy subplots, most notably an underbaked romance between Ouimet and the rebellious daughter of a well-off family. Fortunately, the showdown between Ouimet and Vardon is worth the wait. It may not be, as the title says, the greatest game every played, but it certainly is a darn good round of golf.

-Ethan Alter