‘The Senior’ Review: Michael Chiklis Scores in Rod Lurie’s Stirring Sports Drama

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By Joshephira Honey

Every good sports movie needs an underdog that the audience can root for. The new film from director Rod Lurie (The Last Castle, The Outpost) has a real one that would have seemed too impossible to believe if a screenwriter had made him up. He’s Mike Flynt, who at the age of 59 went back to play for his college alma mater after 37 years, becoming one of the oldest men to ever play the game.

Superbly played by Michael Chiklis, he’s the real-life hero of The Senior, which recently received its world premiere at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. When it gets its inevitable theatrical release, this crowd-pleaser should be a potent box office attraction, especially in non-urban areas. The lines are probably already forming in Texas theaters.

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The Senior

The Bottom Line Touchdown.

Venue: Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival
Cast: Michael Chiklis, Mary Stuart Masterson, Brandon Flynn, James Badge Dale, Rob Corddry, Corey Knight, Terayle Hill
Director: Rod Lurie
Screenwriter: Robert Eisele
1 hour 39 minutes

The story begins in 1970, when Flynt was a star linebacker at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. Unfortunately, he also had a violent temper, which, as we see in harrowing flashbacks, was instilled in him by his equally combative father (James Badge Dale). After getting in one too many violent altercations, Flynt was expelled from the university before he could finish his degree.

Cut to 37 years later, in 2007, when it’s immediately established that Flynt, now working in the construction business, has not mellowed, getting into a fistfight at a work site. It’s clear that, despite his happy marriage to the lovely Eileen (Mary Stuart Masterson, who’s lost none of her onscreen radiance), Flynt has some unfinished business. So when he joins his former teammates at a reunion and one jokingly suggests that he return to school, finish his degree and get back on the gridiron, Flynt impulsively decides to do just that.

Cue the hilarious fish-out-of-water sequences in which Flynt, who’s still in excellent physical condition, tries out for a skeptical coach (Rob Corddry, nicely underplaying), who finally agrees to give him a shot, and meets his disbelieving teammates, all of whom are nearly 40 years his junior. Despite their good-humored ridicule, especially at his choice of motivational music (The Spinners’ “Rubberband Man,” among other vintage cuts), most of them treat Flynt with respect, calling him either “Sir” or “Mr. Flynt,” much to his consternation. The AARP-eligible Flynt gives as good as he gets, though — after he makes one particularly impressive play, he informs a teammate, “Fred Flintstone taught me that, son.”

Unfortunately, not all of Flynt’s fellow players appreciate his presence, including one who injures him with a cheap shot that results in a serious neck injury. So now Flynt not only has to prove to his coach and teammates he can still play despite his age, he has to prove to his doctor that he won’t suffer irreversible damage.

The screenplay by Robert Eisele (The Great Debaters) cannily mixes the story’s inherent humor with strong emotional beats — including Flynt’s contentious relationship with his grown son (Brandon Flynn), which mirrors his past troubles with his father; and his loving relationship with his wife, who makes clear that she expects to be consulted on major decisions. The latter results in one of the film’s best scenes when Eileen lays down the law to her sheepish husband, which Masterson absolutely nails. The film also features religious elements that should resonate with its target audience while not being as heavy-handed as those in many faith-based films.

The Senior, skillfully directed by Lurie, follows the standard template of sports films, including the passionate motivational speech (which the coach conveniently, for dramatic purposes, allows Flynt to deliver instead of him) and the big game at the end, which provides the suitably inspirational climax. But the familiar beats are hammered so skillfully you don’t mind the manipulation. And although you may be shocked, shocked, to learn that the film takes some liberties with the truth, they’re not so egregious as to diminish its overall impact.

The true MVP is Chiklis, who infuses the proceedings with such heart, good humor and forcefulness that you find yourself rooting for his real-life character from beginning to end. The actor, who here clearly exerted himself as much physically as emotionally, delivers his best turn since his award-winning work in The Shield.    

Full credits

Venue: Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival
Production: Wayfarer Studios, Select Films, Game 1, Ten Acre Films
Cast: Michael Chiklis, Mary Stuart Masterson, Brandon Flynn, James Badge Dale, Rob Corddry, Corey Knight, Terayle Hill
Director: Rod Lurie
Screenwriter: Robert Eisele
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Campbell McInnes, Justin Baldoni, Andrew Calof, Manu Gargi
Executive producers: Steve Sarowitz, Tracy Ryerson, Robert Eisele, Kelly Williams, Jonthan Duffy, Rick Salas, John Kang
Director of photography: Tucker Korte
Production designer: Leila Dallal
Editors: Abbi Jutkowitz, Sean Albertson
Costume designer: Kiley Ogle
Composer: Larry Groupé
Casting: Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas
1 hour 39 minutes

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