Monday, January 22, 2018

B-Movie Review: 'Second String' (2002)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the single most preposterous idea for a movie ever: the Buffalo Bills actually winning the Super Bowl.

By: Jimbo X

Hey, what do you know, we've got another Super Bowl coming up and that means I'm required by Internet Law to write something about football. Considering I've already covered the entirety of the 2017 NCAA and NFL seasons, plus a majority of the year's Oakland Raiders games in-depth, I think it's safe to say I'm pretty pigskinned out at this point. Still, the Big Game demands that I crank out some kind of content tying back to America's Game, and to commemorate Super Bowl 52, I figured we would take a look back at one of the most ridiculous football movies of all-time - the all but forgotten TNT original movie Second String

Now, the general concept of the film - that an NFL playoff team's starting offense gets sick with super food poisoning and the second stringers have to carry the squad to the Lombardi Trophy - is pretty unrealistic, but that's not what makes the flick positively unbelievable. No, what makes Second String one of the most intelligence-insulting films of all time is that it has the absurd audacity to dramatize the single most impossible scenario any of us can dare fathom: it's a movie about the Buffalo Bills not only making it to another Super Bowl, but actually WINNING IT. 

Needless to say, the 2002 straight-to-cable offering is a product of its time. It came out just a year and some change after the Bills got bounced from the postseason in classical Bills' style, and it was just a decade removed from the first of four consecutive Buffalo Super Bowl chokes. Little did the producers (or anybody else, for that matter) suspect the Bills wouldn't make the playoffs again for another 17 seasons, let alone record just three seasons with an above .500 record. Indeed, the Bills, at the time of the filming, were an 11-5 squad who were expected to be the dominant force in the AFC East for the foreseeable future; alas, some guy named Brady came along and royally fucked up those plans, but eh ... asides a ' plenty.

But surely, you know all of that prerequisite stuff already. Let's let the movie speak for itself, why don't we?

Fittingly enough, the movie begins with the Bills playing a home game at Ralph Wilson Stadium against - who else? - the New York Giants. Believe it or not, they actually got the real Doug Flutie and Thurman Thomas to show up for the movie. Even more remarkable, Thomas was actually able to find his helmet this time around. Anyhoo, they score a last second win over the G-Men and win themselves a playoffs spot. The fictitious head coach (played by Jon Voight) sends out his second string unit for the final kick, and that's our cue for the opening credits, which show the Bills warming up to the tune of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" (although they edit out all the "faggot" references, of course.) The coach says they need to pick up a free agent QB just in case Flutie goes down before the wildcard game against San Diego. Enter Dan "Give 'Em Hell" Heller, a former Notre Dame gunslinger who is now reduced to selling insurance for a living and because it's the early 2000s, he has that N*SYNC/Linkin Park spiked hair gel look going on. Regardless, his ghetto Robert Downey Jr. looking ass goes home and his wife tells him Buffalo's interested in giving him a try-out, but Heller's far from optimistic about his chances. Alas, his wife manages to convince him to give it a shot, because apparently they're hurting for money even though they both have high-paying professional jobs and live in a house with at least three stories.

Back in Buffalo, the head coach ain't too happy about Heller being brought in. Apparently, he and Heller have some kind of beef from back in the day. Literally EVERYBODY in the locker room stiffs Heller when he shows up except for this one black dude who isn't even given a name nor a position yet. Heller combs over the playbook - which he thinks is a bit too light - and they give him a San Diego Chargers jersey. Get it, because they brought him in to pretend to be their playoff opponent's quarterback? Heller then meets the second string squad - don't worry, we'll get to know them more in-depth very shortly. And now we learn the name of the black dude in the locker room who already knew Heller - it's Gerry Fullerton, in case you were curious.

The coach chides his defense for letting Heller throw a TD, so he tells him to just ignore the whole "no contact" rule. Then all of the first string Bills (and the first backup QB) go out to dinner at a ritzy restaurant and start shoveling oysters down their gullets. Meanwhile, Heller gets a back rub from his wife in the tub. Eh - I'd give her about a 7 out of 10. Would hit. Well, as fate would have it, the entire team winds up getting hospitalized after eating tainted shellfish. And not only will Buffalo's starters miss the weekend's playoff game against San Diego, they're going to be out of action for at least a solid month. Naturally, the head coach kvetches like a motherfucker and we cut to Chris Berman breaking the news on ESPN. He then interviews this "three-time Super Bowl champ" named "Tommy Baker," who I think is supposed to be a stand-in for Troy Aikman. Huh - I wonder if we'll be seeing him later on in the movie? Anyhoo, the coach learns NFL bylaws won't allow him to forfeit the game, so he HAS to let the second stringers take the field against San Diego. We get a little more exposition on the rest of the team and now it's game time. Just to clarify, only the OFFENSIVE starters got sick, so Buffalo does have its (canonically) great defense to rely upon. The back eats a seven yard loss on the Bills' first possession against the Chargers. The back fumbles it again for another seven-yard loss, so they have to punt it away. As Mike Ditka explains on TV, the team is at a fourth and 42 situation. And just when you think things can't get any worse? The punter ends up kicking the ball into the center's testicles.

Fuck, that headstone is already a better tackler than anybody playing for the Giants these days.

On the next drive the Bills commit about five offensive penalties at the same time, yet amazingly, San Diego only has a 3-0 lead heading into the fourth. And Heller lobs an interception with 13 seconds left in the game. Amazingly, the back-up running back Jackie Mumms manages to return the ensuing punt 100 yards for a very "Music City Miracle" like come-from-behind victory, which sets Buffalo up for a date with the Dolphins in the AFC Championship.

In the locker room veteran lineman Ernie Weathers beats the shit out of his own locker and the rest of the team go out for some celebratory brews. Heller recounts his high school coach making them watch Patton and losing 56-3 afterwards. The coach wants Tommy Baker - the three-time Super Bowl winning QB, remember? - to sign on as their new quarterback, even though the general manager thinks it's a bad financial decision. Meanwhile, Heller and Fullerton watch a documentary on bears while Gerry walks around shirtless and doubting Dan's capacity to lead the team - going as far as to accuse him of throwing in the proverbial towel. Time for another practice scene. Heller gives Lenny, the halfback with cement hands, a pigskin and tells him every time somebody knocks it out of his hands he has to chip in $20 to the team's Super Bowl victory party. And then, Tommy Baker shows up. Then Heller makes an offensive lineman cry because he can't read the playbook and he tells him the only way he got through college was by having the QB tell him what to do before every play. 

Meanwhile, Baker's agent tells him their offensive line is so bad they couldn't protect Superman and they cook up a plan to hold out on signing a contract until Buffalo makes the Super Bowl. Then Heller tries to give Weathers a pep talk, but all Weathers does is bitch about taking a pay cut and having some rookie take his position in training camp. Then Heller takes Curtis, the halfback that always fumbles into a GRAVEYARD to practice running the 40 while bobbing and weaving around tombstones. Time for even MORE practice scenes. Plus a shower scene, with plenty of beautiful, muscular black bodies - I mean, uh, I'm all straight and stuff. Then Heller takes the team out to a pee wee league field for some extra nighttime practice running the plays he himself drew up.

And now it's time for the Conference clash with Miami. The P.A. announcer says Tommy Baker failed to sign with the team and that Heller will be the starter and everybody boos. By the second quarter, the Dolphins have leapt to a 21-0 lead. The coach tells Heller to take a knee before halftime, but he decides to run a trick play instead and, yep, the Bills score. Also, LOL at the crowd insert shots from real NFL games that don't even come close to matching the rest of the movie. Anyway, Buffalo goes for a two-point conversion, so that makes it only 21-8 heading ino the the third. Naturally, the coach and Heller have a shouting match in the tunnel and they yell about their time working in Philadelphia together and the coach laments giving up Junior Seau AND Emmit Smith to draft him and Heller responds by calling him "a pig-headed sonofabitch." Let's throw it to Chris Berman and Tommy Baker, who completely buries Heller on live television.

The third quarter begins and Buffalo scores on the opening flea flicker. It's 27-16 Miami now (obviously, we skipped a few plays here and there.) The shitty running back takes it to the house and that makes it a 27-22 game. There are two seconds left in the fourth quarter. And what do you know, the Bills score on yet another trick play to send 'em back to the Super Bowl.

In the locker room Heller chastises his teammates for celebrating the AFC Championship win. He says they should wait until they win the Super Bowl to do all that shit. Of course, he and his receiver pal plan on getting drunk as shit that night anyway, but when Dan gets to the soiree the coach is already there waiting for him. He tells him Baker's been signed and that Heller ain't gonna' be the starter for the Super Bowl. His wife is upset that he didn't put up a bigger fight, despite just winning the AFC Championship by his damn self. Heller tells his spouse to let her "football dreams" die and that he's officially done with all this shit. We cut to New Orleans (complete with stock footage from the '70s) as the Bills take a few practice swings inside the (not) Super Dome. Baker calls his linemen a bunch of idiots and Heller tries to talk some decency into him but Tommy don't want no part of it. Heller's wife buys him a new insurance salesman briefcase and she apologizes for having "too much faith in him." So he goes back to the Super Dome after dark and takes a few imaginary hikes and launches a football at the digital scoreboard. And now, it's time for the Super Bowl, which pits the luckless Bills against the equally luckless Vikings.

The continuity here gets really dicey, since they're using footage from THREE different football games in tandem with the canonical footage. So you actually SEE the Super Dome magically transforming into the H.H.H. Metrodome and Ralph Wilson Stadium throughout the rest of the movie, complete with the midfield logo changing several times. Anyhoo, Baker gets sacked twice, complete with a fumble recovery by Minnesota turned into a touchdown. Another miscue results in a second Vikings defensive touchdown. Heller gives Weathers a talking to on the sideline, then Baker throws another interception to make it 21-0 Minnesota, and the coach FINALLY decides to put Heller under center. More over, he even lets Heller call his OWN damn plays. On his first possession he calls a trick play with one of his offensive linemen lobbing the TD pass. Alas, the kicker screws up the kick and they fall behind 21-6 heading into halftime. The Bills begin the third with another touchdown strike and make it 21-14 following a successful two-point conversion. 

There's 3:46 on the clock and Buffalo has possession. And amazingly, the shitty receiver who can't hold on to the ball manages to reel in the NEXT deep pass, but the two-point attempt is no good. That makes it 21-20 Minnesota, and the Bills block a Vikings field goal attempt to take over at their own 30 with 20 seconds left in the game. Lenny runs out of bounds with 15 seconds on the clock. There are three seconds remaining and Buffalo has it around the MIN 40. The coach wants to go for a field goal, even though the kicker can't even make a simple point-after kick. The ball is snapped, and Heller decides to run with the ball himself. The clock hits zero and he's at the 20 yard line. He's still scrambling but a Vikings defender catches him. He laterals the ball to Weathers and he easily saunters into the end zone for the walkoff touchdown. Heller looks up and sees his wife cheering him on in the stands, and then a reporter asks him what he's going to do after winning the Super Bowl. And that's our cue for the freeze frame smirk, and the movie's over, folks.

...and it was at that point that Heller woke up from his crystal meth-induced coma. Shit, anything that'll make you dream about the Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl is definitely unfit for human consumption.

All in all, I'd consider that a fairly innocuous - if instantly forgettable - little affair. In case you're wondering who played "Give 'Em Hell" Heller, the actor's name is Gil Bellows. He's probably best known for playing Tommy in The Shawshank Redemption, but you might have seen him in the mid-'90s Cinemax staple Love and a .45 as well. Heller's wife, obviously, was played by Teri Polo, a.k.a. what's-her-name from all those Fockers movies, while the guy who played Gerry Fullerton, Richard T. Jones, is probably best remembered for his role in Event Horizon. As for the rest of the cast ... well, you can conduct the IMDB research on your own time.

The film was directed by a guy named Robert Lieberman, who is really only noteworthy because he's the same dude who directed Fire in the Sky. As it turns out, he only has one other theatrical directorial credit to his name - of all fucking things, the third Mighty Ducks movie. Well, if you have to be a two-hit auteur, I guess you can pat yourself on the back for those two hits being a horror movie about an alien abduction and a Disney sequel about hockey-playing juveniles. And not that anybody, anywhere, at any point in history has ever cared, but if you just had to know, Second String was co-written by Tom Flynn and Jere Cunningham - the latter of whom also wrote the 1993 Emilio Estevez-ploitation flick Judgment Night.

Beyond that, though, there's not a whole lot more to say about the movie. It's one of those films that had a tendency to come on at 9:30 in the morning on Saturdays and you'd just put it on as background noise more than something you'd actively watch. If anything, I'd argue this is the epitome of a movie that falls into the pits of horrible mediocrity. There's nothing bad about the movie, per se, but there's nothing really noteworthy about it, either. It's a film that, simply put, is what it is and that's something that really can't be quantified as either a positive or a negative. This is the TV movie equivalent of zero, indicating not a dearth of quality, but a general absence of anything (pro or con) that you might be able to describe as a distinguishing characteristic. Shit, I just watched the fucking thing an hour ago and I've already forgotten 90 percent of what the movie was about - which, I suppose, is the intent of made-for-cable movies in the first place. 

Is Second String worth going out of your way to see? Eh, unless you are a hardcore Bills fan or somebody with an atypical chub for Doug Flutie, I really wouldn't recommend it. As a film from the early 2000s, it's kinda' stuck in that weird vacuum where it's old enough to feel outmoded as fuck but - not unlike the BonziBuddy - it's still not old enough to arouse a strong sense of nostalgia for days gone by.

But on the plus side? It does feature a Super Bowl WITHOUT Tom Brady in it, which automatically makes Second String more appealing than SB LII, taken as a whole.


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