In the annals of unconventional director/leading man match-ups, few are as odd as The Longshots, a PG-rated football drama that stars one-time gangsta rapper Ice Cube and was directed by one-time rap-metal singer Fred Durst. It's safe to say that if both men had been told a decade ago that they'd one day collaborate on this kind of wholesome, uplifting family-oriented entertainment, they would have laughed in your face...or possibly clocked you upside the head. But people can change (and, more importantly, once-lucrative careers can nosedive), so here we are in 2008 and Durst and Cube have forsaken their rough-and-tumble beginnings in order to get in touch with their warm and fuzzy sides.
And had The Longshots scored a box-office touchdown this weekend (it finished in ninth place with an anemic $4.2 million), who knows how many more hardcore musicians might have been inspired to attempt a similar career makeover? Just imagine the possibilities: Iggy Pop directing Mötley Crüe bad boy Tommy Lee in a Mighty Ducks remake, or N.W.A.'s Dr. Dre (Ice Cube's old partner) starring in the movie version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, helmed by Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose!
Very loosely based on a true story, The Longshots casts rising young star Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) as Jasmine Plummer, a pre-teen outcast in the small town of Minden, Louisiana, who spends most of her time with her nose buried in a young-adult fantasy novel. Alternately ignored or ridiculed by her classmates, Jasmine has no after-school social life to speak of, which concerns her single mother Claire (Tasha Smith), especially now that she's working longer hours at the local diner. Desperate for her daughter to have some kind of human contact, Claire cajoles her n'er-do-well brother Curtis (Ice Cube) into keeping Jasmine company until she gets home in the evening. Naturally, neither Curtis nor Jasmine is particularly happy about this arrangement and their mutual animosity boils over into several fights.
But that changes when Curtis—a child football phenom bound for glory until an injury derailed his career—discovers that his niece has inherited the Plummer family football gene and can toss the pigskin around like an amateur Eli Manning. After several weeks of private coaching lessons, he convinces Jasmine to try out for Minden's pee-wee team, which hasn't had a winning season in recent memory. Jeers greet the nervous QB-to-be when she first hits the turf, but immediately cease once the boys see her arm in action. With Jasmine throwing hooks and Hail Marys, Minden's season instantly turns around and before they know it, they've made the playoffs and then the league's Super Bowl match. As the team transforms, the town does as well; civic pride floods the community for the first time since the steel mill shut its doors and, just like Jasmine, Minden's residents look towards the upcoming big game as an opportunity to prove themselves.
The inspirational sports drama is a genre that generally demands heaping doses of Hollywood gloss, so Durst and Cube do deserve credit for trying to "keep it real," at least in the first half. The director and his cinematographer Conrad W. Hall deliberately maintain a grey and overcast visual palette, even after the team starts winning games. Cube's gruff performance adds to the somber mood; shuffling around in baggy clothes and knocking back beer after beer, he makes Curtis a genuinely unappealing character. But The Longshots can only avoid the genre's conventions for so long before it gives into schmaltz and sentiment. A subplot involving Jasmine's absent father is awkwardly shoehorned in an attempt to wring tears out of the audience, and Cube is handed a stinker of a storyline where Curtis develops romantic feelings for his niece's pretty teacher. It doesn't help that Durst completely botches the football sequences, draining them of any excitement or suspense. Almost every single play ends in a touchdown and it's all too clear that Palmer isn't actually completing any passes herself. Meanwhile, Teddy Castellucci's bombastic score blasts away on the soundtrack, desperately trying to prod the emotional response out of the audience that the movie itself can't elicit. Cube and Durst have certainly survived worse career flops, but the chances of them working together again on a film? Let's just say it's a longshot.