“Feel The Passion Of The Balls.”
Director: Mel Smith
Cast: Paul Kaye, James Cromwell, Alice Evans
Synopsis: A rebellious young British bowls player teams with another older and more traditional player to take on the Australian bowls team.
There can’t be many sports left for the cinema to sex up. Dominoes, perhaps — but it’s surely only a matter of time before we’re treated to the spectacle of some b-list actor dextrously twirling rectangular black slabs through their fingers as they smile cockily at the camera. In Blackball it’s Paul Kaye, an actor who briefly looked as though he was heading for some kind of major career on the back of his celebrity-baiting red carpet interviewer alter-ego Dennis Pennis. Sadly, things never really worked out for Kaye, largely because he chose to appear in sub-standard Brit-coms such as this, I suppose.
He plays Cliff, a cocky young lad with an improbable talent for the sedate sport of lawn green bowls. With his rock star hairstyle, wrong-side-of-the-tracks background, and fondness for the word ‘tosser’, Cliff finds himself shunned by the snobbish members of the sedate Royal Torquay Bowls Club, where Ray Speight (James Cromwell, adroitly mastering an English accent) has been club champion for the past twenty-five years. Cliff’s only way of forcing himself into the club’s reckoning is by entering the County Championships, and he causes something of a stir with his flamboyant antics as he effortlessly brushes all-comers aside, including the previously imperious Mr. Speight.
Cliff begins to dream of a place on the national team, but his dream is snatched away when he is stripped of his title on a technicality and banned from playing competitive bowls for fifteen years. However, brash American sports promoter Rick Schwartz (Vince Vaughn), has got wind of Cliff’s crowd-pleasing antics and negotiates a multi-million pound TV deal on the condition that Cliff’s ban is lifted.
Blackball’s story is so formulaic you could almost believe it was written as a spoof of every triumph-against-the-odds sporting movie made since movies began to talk. The moment Cliff tastes a little success it goes straight to his head and he begins behaving like a complete knob, treating his best friend (Johnny Vegas) like a lackey and taking his girlfriend, who — guess what? — just happens to be the daughter of Speight, for granted. When friend and girlfriend are successfully pushed away, Cliff suddenly discovers that his natural talent has deserted him and he must undergo a last minute character transformation in order to make everything right again.
You could forgive the movie to some degree if it was funny, but for every half-laugh that writer Tim Firth manages to cook up there are a dozen or more that fall flat, largely because they’ve been presented before in films far better than Blackball. Cliff swaggers around like Liam Gallagher, and is never really likeable enough to win our support or sympathy, even though we know he’s really a nice bloke under all the bluff and bluster. Even if you’re a fan of bowling, this film is likely to leave you cold.