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'Legend of Bagger Vance, The'

Redford swings for the mystical in 'The Legend of Bagger Vance'

Friday, November 03, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

If "The Legend of Bagger Vance" seems familiar, it should. While the key action takes place on a golf course, the movie's story and themes recall to a remarkable degree Barry Levinson's 1984 baseball saga "The Natural," which starred Robert Redford.

'The Legend
Bagger Vance'

RATING: PG-13, for some sexual content.

STARRING: Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron.

DIRECTOR: Robert Redford.


2 1/2 stars.


This time, Redford is directing a more contemporary golden boy, Matt Damon. Especially in the early scenes, when the camera catches Damon at a certain angle and in the right kind of light, your brain may register a flash of the young Redford -- the Sundance Kid, born to the privilege of his impossibly good looks, the noble hero destined for greatness.

But in so many Redford films, destiny inevitably sidetracks such men, who may disappear for years nursing their tragic kismet until the gods determine that they shall reappear to mystically capture, however belatedly, their place in the sun. No wonder he played the title role in "The Great Gatsby."

As aging rookie Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," he led the sorry New York Knights to glory with a baseball bat called Wonderboy that was carved from a tree struck by lightning. In "A River Runs Through It," Paul MacLean (Brad Pitt) "wastes" his life drinking and playing cards and working for a Montana newspaper while learning from his father that fly-fishing is a metaphor for life. In "Quiz Show," Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), handsome young scion of a distinguished academic family, becomes a national hero by demonstrating his intellectual prowess on the TV quiz show "21" -- until an investigation proves the game was fixed from the start.

In "Bagger Vance" (adapted by Jeremy Leven from Steven Pressfield's novel), Redford again offers an elegiac rumination on the search for perfection by persons who decide they cannot live up to such expectations.

This time, however, he overreaches. The characters come off more as symbolic representations than as flesh-and-blood people, perhaps because too much of their back stories are not dramatized but narrated (by Jack Lemmon, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film). And the way in which the movie tries to attribute mystical elements to the playing of the game may have even golfers rolling their eyes and trying not to snicker.

Damon plays Rannulph Junuh, the finest young golfer in the South until he went off to fight in World War I and experienced the horrors of combat. Upon returning home, he became a recluse. He would be lured back into the arena by the woman he once loved, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), who arranges an exhibition match between the two best golfers of the era, Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) and Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch). Jones was another golden boy, and he would quit playing competitively while in his prime.

Bagger Vance (Will Smith) shows up in the dead of night and offers to caddy for Junuh, who is pounding away at golf balls for the first time in years. But particularly in the first round of the match, Bagger seems more hindrance than help.

In fact, he is stripping away Junuh's ego to make him susceptible to Bagger's psychological approach to the game. He calls it "finding the field." Today's golfers would call it "getting into the zone," a mental focus so intense that all distractions melt away.

Bagger is simply teaching Junuh theories that would not come into vogue until 60 years after his time. We realize there isn't really anything mystical about it, except for Bagger's prattle about Junuh finding his "authentic swing," his inborn rhythm, his spiritual center. After a while, it almost invites derision.

But don't blame Smith, playing what for him is a subdued role. The entire cast proves eminently watchable, aided by Judiana Makovsky's period costumes, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus' use of light and Rachel Portman's ethereal music.

In his acting debut, 12-year-old J. Michael Moncrief is particularly good as Hardy Greaves, a local lad who helps Bagger during the match. In a sense, we are supposed to see the story through his eyes -- with an understanding of the extraordinary event we are witnessing, a bit of hero worship and, most of all, a sense of wonder.

But isn't that what Tiger Woods is for? Now this guy is mystical -- and just about perfect. How can "The Legend of Bagger Vance" compete?

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