The “Big Game” sports movie gets some welcome Caribbean in “Sprinter,” a drama about the pitfall-filled rise of a Jamaican short-distance runner.
It’s pure formula and almost pure hokum, but as everything sounds more fun in that musical Jamaican patois, it’s not an unpleasant (if overlong) sitting.
Dale Elliott plays Akeem Sharp, a runner competing in the shadow of his “legendary” older brother, a great sprinter years earlier at St. Lazarus High. He’s a big kid, but easily overlooked. He can’t win at his brother’s distance, 400 meters, to save his life.
It’s been a pleasant working class life, even though his mother (Lorraine Toussaint) left for the U.S. in the film’s opening scene. “It’s just two years,” she consoled her sons and husband (Dennis Titus). She’d be sending money home so that they can finish their house, educate their kids.
Ten years later, every call and Skype is just “Well, maybe next year.”
Older brother Germaine (Kadeem Wilson) is still around, a “legend” and maybe the wrong kind of role model. He’s the “General,” now — a flirt and skirt-chaser with an infant and a very lucrative phone “Congratulations, you’re a winner” lottery scam that he runs out of his fenced-in mansion, a new Jaguar, and a lot of bad advice.
The kid? He needs to listen to his coach (David Alan Grier), who looks at his fast-start, faster-fade 400 meter failure, and at his stopwatch, and makes a suggestion.
“You never win de four, but two? Maybe another story.”
Events conspire to force Akeem to try 200 meters. And overnight, he’s a star, “first time in de papers” the down to Earth female sprinter Kerry (Shantol Jackson) teases. “Don’ let it gooo to y’ head!”
Which of course it does — TV appearances, clubs and parties with brother Germaine. Germaine even sets him up with a previously unattainable girlfriend (Shak-Quera South).
What can go wrong? Well, all the seeds of his downfall have been planted — the absent mother, the underworld brother, the mercenary hottie.
And Akeem is sophomoric in his sophistication, even on his best days.
But how many movies do you see set in Jamaica, that tell a Jamaican story? “Sprinter” takes something the country is known for and builds a tolerably formulaic picture that looks beyond the picturesque and for the “real.”
Akeem’s nickname becomes “The Rasta Rocket,” and of course he lets that go to his head. But as he’s chasing girls and looking at U.S. track scholarship offers, we see his world — nice enough houses, with even the poorest covered with barred windows and locked gates. Guns show up more than once. Corruption and criminality are right out in the open.
People leave “The Island Paradise” for a reason.
The reggaeton-infused soundtrack doesn’t mince words and the script doesn’t shy away from teen sex, teen missteps and what happens when your hopes are pinned to the narrowest of dreams — athletics.
The cast is game enough, with Grier surprisingly effective (if not at all funny) as the coach-losing-his-patience stereotype. A standout moment comes the one time Germaine breaks out of “Jamaican” and offers a generic, white American accent delivering the empty promises he once heard, that he’s warning Akeem about hearing now.
It’s just that “Sprinter” loses what little nerve it has at about halfway through, a reminder that Hollywood versions of “The Big Game” movie have had to break the formula to gain notice.
It’s likable enough, but after breaking out of the blocks, the picture gets gassed by the midway mark. The best it can do after that is not “win” or “place,” but just “show.”
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, drugs, profanity, guns
Cast: Dale Elliott, Lorraine Toussaint, David Alan Grier, Shantol Jackson, Shak-Quera South and Kadeem Wilson.
Credits: Directed by Storm Saulter, script by Storm Saulter and Robert A. Maylor. A FilmRise release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:51