Friday Night Lights goes deep -- a rare play for football movies.

Hell of a Catch 

Friday Night Lights goes deep -- a rare play for football movies.

There are at least three movies waiting between the covers of H.G. Bissinger's best-selling 1990 nonfiction book Friday Night Lights. One would concern itself with the socioeconomic life of a small west Texas town built on the wobbly foundations of oil and racism and the out-of-whack worship of a high school football team. Another would deal with the inexplicable life of crime pursued by the star players on a Dallas high school football superpower. And there's yet another potential film about the season of the Permian Panthers, a team that in 1988 was seemingly destined for the state title. Peter Berg, the Chicago Hope star who most recently directed the Rock in The Rundown, chose the last course for his adaptation, presumably because it's more fun to show a guy being flipped like a medium-rare burger during a crushing tackle than it is to delve into the politics of a school district that spends a fortune on a new stadium and an embarrassing pittance on textbooks.

Which leaves us with a familiar-feeling football movie, culminating with the Big Game and sprinkled with glimpses of the off-field lives of young men who want to run with the ball as far as they can from the small town that adores them to the point of abhorring them. Friday Night Lights lacks the gravitas of Bissinger's book, but that's a given; Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's second cousin, is out to entertain the masses, not educate them. So the season unfolds with a familiar montage of crashes and thuds, the sounds of snap counts and snapped ligaments, the latter belonging to star running back Bobbie Miles (Derek Luke), whose visions of scholarships and million-dollar contracts are shattered during the first game of the season.

The football sequences, exciting as they are, could have come from any movie -- Any Given Sunday shrunk down to homecoming size. But Berg rescues Bissinger from the teen-beat condescension given his material when MTV ripped it off wholesale for 1999's Varsity Blues. Berg, like Bissinger, loves the young Panthers: quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black), who tends to a mother who "ain't right" and believes himself cursed by bad luck and a bad arm; wide receiver Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), son of a state champion (played with unexpected ferocity by country singer Tim McGraw) who never lets him forget it; tight end Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez), whose good grades mean he doesn't need football as badly as his teammates do; and Boobie, whose bum leg nearly ruins a season and devastates the ambitions of a young man and the loving uncle who raised him. Leading them is Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), a decent man who occasionally forgets he coaches children not yet men.

Friday Night Lights' opening scenes, shot with a handheld camera for immediacy and intensity, suggest a bleaker, nastier version of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. (Linklater was once slated to direct Friday Night Lights.) But whereas Confused's star quarterback, grinnin' good guy Randy "Pink" Floyd, was illuminated by lights even when off the field, Friday Night Lights' Winchell looks lost in the haze of a weekend throwdown. Early in the movie, he reluctantly goes upstairs with a young blonde looking to nail the stud QB who may be her ticket out of Odessa. But their encounter goes horribly awry, and she accuses him of being gay. Things go even worse for Billingsley, whose father catches him with a girl on the couch and turns an evening of screwing around into a humiliating lesson in how to hold on to a football. These guys can't turn around without someone reminding them how good they're supposed to be, how good they'd better be.

The football sequences are thrilling, bruising, unrelenting. But ultimately it's the nasty stuff on the sidelines that grabs and keeps our interest. Moments like these make Friday Night Lights the rare football movie that runs up the score.

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