(R, United Artists, 110 minutes, theatrical release date: January 31, 1986)
If you come into the 1986 Rob Lowe vehicle Youngblood expecting another Slap Shot only to walk away disappointed that it instead chooses to emulate Rocky IV, well...join the club. I realize that I don't have too much blind nostalgia for the 1980s, which makes me a more objective chronicler of that decade's cinema, but it also means that I can't celebrate this movie the way it was meant to be, as a product of its particular time and place. Youngblood strikes me as an amalgam of every unfortunate trend in cinema around this time, from the entitled puerility of the teensploitation genre to the checkpoint-dotted trajectories of the underdog sports movie and finally the "might makes right" machismo of the action genre.
This movie deserved a penalty box more than a projection booth.
Fresh off his Razzie-winning turn as the unctuous bar band bad boy Billy from Joel Schumacher's St. Elmo's Fire, a low-key Lowe plays the titular cipher, Dean Youngblood, who declares right smack dab at the beginning that he's bucking for an open slot on the Hamilton Mustangs, the same minor league Canadian hockey team his older brother Kelly (Jim Youngs) briefly played for. Ambitious as he may be to escape the dreary life of a farm hand, Lowe sounds more pissy than powerful in asserting his independence, which is not a good sign as to the tenor of his character under the writing/directing duties of Peter Markle.
Youngblood's only rival at the tryouts is the requisite unshaven brute named Racki (George Finn) who delights in smashing his competitors' faces into the ice. Consider him the Ogie Oglethorpe of the plot. Mustangs coach Murray Chadwick (Ed Lauter) decides he needs someone with actual skill at scoring goals instead of cracking skulls (inadvertent spoiler alert) and chooses Youngblood. Racki may not be impressed, but Chadwick's daughter Jessie (Cynthia Gibb) certainly is when she gets an eyeful of Youngblood's bare ass! Consider her the Ogle Ogiethorpe of the plot.
Mustangs star player Derek Sutton (Patrick Swayze) welcomes Youngblood to the fold by wearing a jock strap across his face like a surgical mask and shaving the rookie's testicles. To prove there are no hard feelings, Sutton gets Youngblood bombed on tequila shots to sabotage his stamina for the next morning's practice. It isn't until Youngblood scores his first competitive goal that Sutton decides to make friends with him, thus Swayze slips into his inimitable sage bro persona. Sutton has spent years gunning for a NHL contract, painfully aware that "you have to play by their rules," as he confides to Youngblood. The rookie learns this the hard way when the Mustangs face off against the Toronto Bay Bombers and who should be their newest recruit but the violent Racki!
It's at this point in which Youngblood the movie gets blitzed by a dubious morality which necessitates vengeance and brutality not at the whims of "them" but "us." Sutton is critically injured by Racki and decides to return home as a means of taking a stand, but his one-eyed brother and heretofore-disapproving daddy (Eric Nesterenko) goad him into toughening up and send him back for the championship game. The movie's ultimate victory isn't so much Youngblood nailing that game-winning penalty shot as much as it is his taking off his gloves and beating the crap out of Racki. And Peter Markle accepts this without any irony (Slap Shot), energy (The Karate Kid) or even the campy corniness of Rocky's populist plea to the U.S.S.R.
Youngblood is just so ham-fistedly macho that it's hard to engage with in any way whatsoever, which kills the already transparent melodrama. And the fact that Markle has had real life experience with the game, even going so far as to cast a genuine major league hockey hero in Toronto/Chicago veteran Nesterenko, makes this movie's hopeless adherence to formula all the more disappointing. There's not a whole lot of love in the staging of the competitions, which are ruined by indifferent editing and an over reliance on slow-motion at the expense of the game's inherent emphasis on speed and maneuvers. Markle doesn't even treat the other characters besides Youngblood and Sutton with any form of dignity, thus turning the Mustangs into an agonizingly interchangeable pee-wee collective. Those eager to spot a pre-stardom Keanu Reeves will notice he seems to disappear without explanation halfway through the film, but not before he attempts at least three lines with a laughably stilted Quebec accent.
And because the former Hot Dog...The Movie auteur can't help himself, the movie presents us with a pointless digression in the presence of Fionnula Flanagan as Miss McGill, owner of the Mustangs' resident boardinghouse. If you've ever seen a single teen sex comedy in your lifetime, you can guess what kind of quirk she exhibits even before Markle gives us a salacious shot of her cut-off clad posterior. Like all of the male-female interactions in this movie, the device of Ms. McGill proves more sleazy than the filmmakers seem willing to acknowledge and shows up a form of storytelling shorthand, one all too prevalent from this period, which robs the movie of any momentum or meaning just because it's a supposed idea of a lark.
Markle tries to be everything to everyone in the Eighties sense, so there's also a bevy of mediocre MOR rock music (gratuitous Mickey Thomas, a technical foul if there ever was one), a sweaty sex scene between Youngblood and Jessie (gratuitous T&A, which is an improvement over secondhand Starship) plus an overly slick, MTV-ready sheen by virtue of the reliable Canadian DP and Cronenberg regular Mark Irwin. But Markle only piles onto the superficiality to the point where he robs his performers of their good qualities and drags them down to the script's lunk-headed level. The likes of Swayze, Cynthia Gibb, Ed Lauter, and even Rob Lowe, who can be a charismatic presence in the right settings, cannot sell this confused material even when they try, and they surely do try.
Youngblood is a movie which, to reference the Coasters' golden oldie which I'd rather hear 55 times in a row instead of sitting through this once, you can get out of your mind. In fact, the sooner, the better. This is a singularly graceless and ultimately groan-inducing affair that refuses to resolve itself in even the most remotely plausible manner, and wastes a lot of talent and premise without fail. Cynthia Gibb is an impossibly fetching personality, but even Short Circuit 2 knew better what to do with her, and Ed Lauter is a reliable crank even as his motivational speeches prove forgettable and his character never really becomes humanized. A human touch is what this movie so desperately needed in retrospect, since Youngblood is no more fun and imaginative than re-enacting a Stanley Cup play-off through table hockey.