Sportsflicks: Second String, or The Bills Win The Super Bowl

Finally, a movie in which an undersized Canadian quarterback leads an underdog team to the Super Bowl. No, not that one. The other one.
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 For a reliably thwarted team that plays football in a faded, shrinking, rust-bound city, the Buffalo Bills have enjoyed an oddly persistent spot in popular culture. The team’s four successive and unsuccessful Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s are the most obvious reason for it, but the long shadow of futility cast by all that near-success is what has kept the Bills around. As a football team, they captivated minds and broke balls two decades ago, and haven’t done much since. But as a symbol of some bleak other thing, the Bills are still current.

Most of Bills Culture involves the 90’s anti-dynasty, with artists as diverse as Vincent Gallo and Mercury Rev finding inspiration in Scott Norwood’s wide right kick at the end of Super Bowl XXV. The scene in The Simpsons episode “Lisa The Greek” in which Lisa Simpson spitefully tells Homer to bet on Buffalo; the NFC team would change yearly in repeats of the episode, but the Bills, evergreen punchline that they are, stayed in place. There’s also a Snickers ad in which Marv Levy, Jim Kelly and company make fun of themselves, which isn’t quite art but is pretty amusing as Snickers teams go.

In 2002, Bills Culture received a small but important addition, in the TNT TV-movie-as-wish-fulfilment Second String.  It is directed by Robert Lieberman, best known either for All I Want For Christmas (the one with Thora Birch and the mouse) or Fire In The Sky (the one with Robert Patrick and the abduction-happy aliens). While neither aliens nor holiday rodents play a role in Second String, there is a notable fancifulness to it, at least insofar as the movie gives the Buffalo Bills finally get another shot at Super Bowl glory. All it takes for them to get there, in the movie and maybe next season, is a massive, team-wide case of food poisoning and the inflated ego of CSI’s George Eads.

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Jon Voight is Chuck Dichter, the Gruff No-Nonsense Head Coach. Dichter (it’s a very good name) finally has the team he needs to get to the Super Bowl, and has the game plan to get the team there; while the character was supposedly modeled on one-time Bills defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson, Dichter’s run-first strategy recalls “Ground Chuck" Knox. His personnel strategy, on the other hand, is pure Mike Tannenbaum: Dichter builds a top-heavy offense that leaves little space on the roster or under the salary cap for an adequate second team. (This was back when Mr. Voight was only playing stern conservative figureheads in movies, as opposed to taking the more method-actorly, fuming-darkly-across-from-Sean-Hannity approach to the role he has adopted in recent years.)  

What sixteen weeks of top-level competition (or the demands of basic storytelling verisimilitude) couldn’t do to this dream team happens in the form of vibrio vulnificus. You would think oysters being served in the greater Buffalo area in late December would not spoil so easily, but here we are, and there is Dichter’s carefully constructed roster barfing to beat the band with the playoffs looming. It doesn’t look good.

Gil Bellows, of Ally McBeal semi-fame, is Dan Heller, a first-round bust now selling insurance about as well as he played in his first NFL stint (which, of course, was under Chuck Dichter, when both were with, of course, the Philadelphia Eagles).  He is what Spike Lee might call a “magical journeyman quarterback,” one blessed with Joe Flacco’s arm, Oprah Winfrey’s wisdom and Tommy Maddox’s career trajectory. Heller overcomes his own self-doubt and self-pity, wins Dichter’s confidence, and instills a winning attitude into what is left of the Buffalo Bills offense. Eventually, everyone receives redemption except for the emergency kicker, because it’s Buffalo. Sorry, spoiler alert.

The eponymous “second string” includes Richard T. Jones (star of, among other things, the 2002 hip-hop version of The Great Gatsby, G) as an old friend and teammate of Heller’s, and Lamont Johnson, the guy who weeps in front of Roy Firestone in Jerry Maguire, as Weathers, a veteran player in search of redemption. There is also a wide receiver who has to pay $20 every time he drops the ball, which only proves the writers of Second String have watched the edited-for-television version of The Program. (One positive aspect of this film’s obscurity relative to The Program is the lack of high school football players re-enacting the V. Vulnificus poisoning in the way The Program’s lying-down-in-traffic scene continues, bafflingly, to be re-staged.)

George Eads is an asshole. Probably not in real life, but definitely in the role of Tommy Baker, the aforementioned replacement kicker and quarterback, who dicks around Bills management so he can get a fourth Super Bowl ring and a big contract from another, non-Bills team. Dichter buys into Baker’s ruse and declines to sign a kicker, or even see if his freaking punter knows how to make field goals. Even in this concussion-conscious age we live in, seeing a teammate knock Baker out with his helmet is one of this movie’s highlights.

The soundtrack, by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, is a melange of late 1990’s jock jams and stadium rock, filtered through the knowledge that it had to sound like, but not exactly like the real thing. It’s probably the most interesting thing about the film, and seemingly the result of Mothersbaugh listening to a bunch of Jock Jams volumes, then attempting to repeat them by memory in a recording studio. The producers also add in Apollo Four Forty’s “Stadium Parking Lot”, in one of the few exterior shots that establish the existence of Buffalo Bills fandom, if not Buffalo itself. We can only presume that the tailgaters weren’t talkin’ ‘bout “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub”.

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Even by the standards of a TV movie about the Buffalo Bills, Second String is full of plot holes. The Bills squeak into the playoffs in the last minute during the film’s opening sequence, but somehow wind up with home-field advantage and a bye-week. Their postseason opponents are the San Diego Chargers, a team that went 1-15 in the year in which Second String was filmed; this marks the closest Ryan Leaf has ever come to the playoffs. Weirder still, the Bills have to face Damon Huard and the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship.

The Super Bowl sequence is an Elementary-level hodgepodge of mixed footage, low camera angles and editing that hides the fact that Super Bowl XXXV? [sic] is being played simultaneously in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Toronto and Indianapolis. There, in those various stadiums, Gil Bellows snaps Buffalo’s curse, learns to believe in himself, and coaxes a smile from Jon Voight. Only Dennis Miller's Benghazi jokes can manage that feat these days.

Second String is not, strictly speaking, a good movie, even if it does feature Teri Polo as motivational window dressing. But it lacks the rancid anti-labor politics and Keanu Factor of The Replacements, and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The two films do have some things in common: washed-up quarterbacks played by Canadian actors leading no-names, has-beens and screw-ups to victory; Academy Award-winning actors who appeared in Enemy Of The State acting grumpy in a headset; a fair share of slow-motion passing attempts. But where The Replacements has an anti-union stance that makes On The Waterfront look like Salt Of The Earth, Second String has respect for both starters and the backups. Except for George Eads.

Second String will do nothing to fill that trophy-shaped hole in Bills fans’ hearts.  But with another Bills-free Super Bowl coming up, it’s at least a worthy excuse to break out the Genny Cream and beef on weck, if only to hear legendary announcer Van Miller yell out “YOU GUYS STINK!!!” at his team, and yours, and ours.


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