(Disclaimer: I’m not 100% sure about the legal disclaimer stuff the FTC has in place for bloggers, but let me state that I was not paid to write or review this movie, I did receive a voucher by the people who produced, created and marketed the film that allowed me to watch it, much as your standard mainstream media reviewers will get to see movies. I might do an affiliate program with the movie in the near future, based on how awesome I thought this movie was. That said, let’s get on with the review!)
Welcome to Melrose, Yanks!
This phrase, uttered to the fictional Kansas City Wanderers near the end of the new rugby movie “Play On,” is just as appropriate a welcoming phrase to movie viewers who aren’t familar to the game of rugby as it is to the band of rugby players and their first trip to the Scottish Borders. And it’s a great introduction to the movie, recently released online in a true labor of love, by rugby players turned movie makers for rugby players, the people who love them, and those who have never seen a game of rugby in their lives.
(Rugby players should quickly understand the importance of the Melrose area to the game of rugby, not just because of the toughness of the players – which is pointed out in the contrast between the flashier Keir and the Melrose Borders team – but also because the Borders region is where the game of Olympic Rugby was founded.)
On its surface, “Play On” is about a young man, Keir Kilgore, who grew up immersed in the game of rugby, with his father named as one of Scotland’s greatest players in his era, and the expectations being that this young man would do the same in his time. Keir ended up blowing a chance to play for the Scottish national team in the last game of the season for the Edinburgh Warriors when his team lost because of his own poor and selfish choice. Instead of face up to his critics, in a drunken haze Keir purchases a one-way ticket to Kansas City, where he hopes to fulfill a financial dream of taking a spot kicking for the Kansas City Chiefs in the National Football League.
Upon reaching Arrowhead Stadium, Keir quickly finds out that while he’s in Kansas City, yes Toto he’s not exactly in Kansas anymore. After being mugged and having his clothing and money taking from him, he crosses paths with Dante Hamilton, a former football star who is trying to earn his way back onto an NFL team. The pair end up with a tryout for the Chiefs, and while things do not go as planned for Hamilton, Keir finds himself offered a further year of playing for the Chiefs “second division team.” The arrogance of the young Kilgore costs his that chance for playing in the NFL and soon after Keir ends up connecting with the Kansas City Wanderers, a fictional team of men who play the game of rugby not for glory or the adoration of large crowds and huge paychecks (a fact Keir stumbles across quickly as he has to also learn the fine art of construction to secure a job in Kansas City), but for the love of the game.
I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because I think you have to watch “Play On” in order to really appreciate how this movie is different from many other sports movies. From the amusing and touching storytelling, to the beautiful scenery, especially the areas surrounding the Scottish Borders near the end of the movie, to the great acting, “Play On” should not be missed.
Adam Gray-Hayward plays an excellent Keir Kilgour, diva rugby player who has been humbled by his choices until he has no choice but to rebuild himself. At the beginning of the movie, Gray-Hayward’s body language shows the subtle signs of arrogance, and he hit the facial expressions perfectly for someone who was supposed to have been overly pampered as an athlete. It’s a small thing, I know, but those make for some of the best movies, and Gray-Hayward hit it strong here. We get to watch as the character of Keir develops from someone who represents the things we dislike in divas (whether rock stars, athletes, or models) into a more humble man, grateful and mindful of the wonderful chances ahead of him, turning into the man his father always wanted him to be.
The character of Finlay Kilgour, the patriarch of the family who sets the standard for hard-hitting Scottish rugby in his day, was played by Chard Hayward, the real-life father of Gray-Hayward. Finlay Kilgour represents an older school of thought about rugby, back before the game was played professionally, when men were men, and you know the rest of the saying. Many of the standard archetypes played through my mind as I watched Hayward. Gruff, tough, unable to express his love to his son until near the end of the movie (and at the very end in, of all ways, giving his #7 Scotland jersey to Keir to take back to the U.S.) the elder Kilgour epitomizes the simple toughness of another era of rugby. While Keir becomes more the man that Finlay wanted him to become, Finlay becomes more of the father figure Keir might have needed growing up.
This movie isn’t just about Keir’s last chance to become a man, it’s also about a father understanding the desire to be more of a part of his son’s life. And the fact that Gray-Hayward and Chard Hayward are son and father in real life probably helped cement this part of the story for me, the interaction between the pair felt like it needed very little “acting.” Going beyond this pair, the movie makers selected very well when they were looking for actors in this movie.
(I don’t know how many of the actors playing the Wanderers were actually members of the Kansas City Blues, if so then I have to ask – who in the hell knew rugby players could act?? Usually those Academy Award winning acting performances are left to soccer players who have been tapped on the ankle in the middle of a game 😉 )
What’s the game-changer for “Play On?”
It’s the multi-layered stories woven together in the movie. You have Keir trying to move on from his actions when he left the Gunners in Edinburgh and change from the man he was at that time (selfish and petulant) and become the kind of man he needed to be for his future.
You have the story of the Kansas City Wanderers, a group of misfits and weekend warriors barely able to put 15 guys on the field but filled with more rugby spirit than a team full of Keir Kilgours, and how they came back together thanks to the efforts expected of their newest player, and even ended up in Scotland.
Then there’s the story of Dante Hamilton, played by Wesley Hall – a fiery young former NFL player who is trying to get a second chance to play in the NFL after a knee injury sidelines him and ends up finishing his career, sending him to work at a BBQ trailer in Kansas City (don’t laugh, if there’s one thing people in Kansas City take as seriously as the Chiefs, it’s their BBQ!). His journey back into sports crosses paths with Kilgour, who convinces him to play for the Wanderers, with the promise that Hamilton will have ample chances to take out his frustration with the young Scotsman.
And the underlying story of the movie, touched on firmly yet with a delicate hand throughout the film, is the story of the game of rugby itself – how it has morphed in the last two decades from an amateur sport where the idea of taking a paycheck for playing would never be tolerated, to a professional sport, with salaries, publicists and growing egos to match. It uses the clashing dynamics of the family Kilgour to glimpse at the differences in the two rugby eras, the elder who played the game for love, and the younger generation who grew up at the dawn of the professional era of the game.
At times the storytelling and acting reminded me of Oliver Stone’s professional football epic “Any Given Sunday,” but without the over the top, unbelieveable storytelling, or the overdependance on “shock acting” by the cast, and much less of a need to use gratuitous athletic violence to hammer plot points home for the audience.
Keep your eyes open when you watch “Play On” or you might miss cameos by Scottish Rugby legends such as Gavin Hastings (one of my personal favorites in Scottish Rugby).
There were a couple of minor inconsistencies in the movie, but they don’t take away from the story itself and go on to explain to movie goes who are not familiar with the NFL why Keir won’t automatically be signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, and is asked to play a season in the NFL Developmental League (of which there really isn’t one). It’s necessary to show the selfishness of the character at the time, and the event and it’s aftermath do have an impact on how the character develops. Like I said, unless you’re a rabid NFL fan who can’t stand any inconsistency in how the league is represented, you’ll see how it flows into the movie. And if you are that rabid of an NFL fan, well then you really need a life.
Anyone who has ever played rugby, or any sport for the love of the game, needs to watch “Play On” to remember what drew them to their game.
The bottom line: While “Play On” isn’t meant to be a traditional blockbuster movie, it did deliver that level of theater enjoyment for me. From the multilayered storywriting to the superb acting performance, to rugby play so authentic I found myself wincing from time to time remembering being on the pitch, “Play On” is a must-see indie movie for 2011. I hope that the production team behind “Play On” will be able to secure a short theater run in parts of the United States, while this movie was great to watch on my computer, it will be even more amazing on the big screen – especially the scenes showcasing the luxurious Scottish countryside.
“Play On” is available for rental through the film’s Web site, and can be rented or purchased on the iTunes platform.
Final Grade: 9.5/10