Fast Break

Director: Jack Smight
Gabe Kaplan, Harold Sylvester, Michael Warren

With my various writings coving a great deal of different kinds of movies, by now you have probably concluded that I have a great passion for film. Not just the unknown kind, but also the known kind. And you would be right. Hopefully my passion for cinema has shown that I, who have been around the cinematic block so many times, has a lot of love in him. Certainly I try in my writings to make myself appear to be a reasonable and approachable person. But all the same I am human, and I must confess that there are some things that really get my goat. I am a little hesitant to list some of these things because I have a fear I may not look as good to you, dear reader, as I did before listing them. On the other hand, maybe you'll be able to relate to me better afterwards, since I am admitting that I have weaknesses just like you. For example, I hate taking the bus in my city when I am in a hurry. The bus always seems to be late during these times, and the other people on the bus always request to stop at every single stop between when I get on and when I disembark. Another thing that I hate is that I often encounter various people in my city who haven't bathed and/or haven't washed their clothes. Many encounters with the unclean have taught me there are several prime bad smells these people have. One frequent odor I have encountered is the smell of metal. For the life of me, I haven't figured out what causes this particular odor on a person. Another puzzling odor that I've found a lot of unwashed people have is the scent of pepperoni. What causes this odor is also puzzling to me. The only theory I have come up with which may explain this particular odor is that in my city's downtown core there are plenty of establishments that sell slices of pizza at a cheap price.

Looking back at what I have just written, I realize that those two "hates" that I listed are for kind of really petty things. The kind of "hates" I should be talking about should be for things that have annoyed me constantly for long periods of time. One kind of subject that I have found that has annoyed me continuously for decades is sports. I have to admit that I am not quite sure where my hate for the subject originated from, though it may be because I have never been terribly athletic, even when I was a child. Whatever the cause or causes might be, I hate sports. I hate everything about them. I hate how they constantly pre-empt programs on television that I would rather watch. I hate how boring they often are; how people can be entertained by a ball going back and forth over and over again is something I have never been able to understand. I also hate how various athletes are held in high esteem by so much of the public. To me, the ability to slap a puck around doesn't seem very noble. The people instead that the public should be admiring should be people who use their brains. People who work hard to come up with a scientific formula to me are real heroes. This feeling of mine also explains another thing that I hate about sports, how many educational institutions out there have sport programs. For example, there is college football. I don't understand why a post-secondary learning institution would devote so much to athletic activities that to me require little to no brain power or learning. What really gets me steamed up is when I hear about people who get accepted in these post-secondary institutes simply because they were great at sports in high school, while they got substandard grades in every other subject.

After reading my thoughts about sports, I think it goes without saying why on this web site I have reviewed very few movies that involve sports. As well, I watch very few sport-related movies during my private time. There has to be something of enough interest attached to a spot-related Fast Breakmovie to get me to watch it. For example, I watched That Championship Season because it was a Cannon film. Years ago, when I first came across the movie Fast Break - which had the double whammy of being a sport movie set at a college - I only decided to watch it because of its star. To my surprise, I found the movie very entertaining, enough that I don't know why I didn't review the movie at the time. Recently I came across a copy of the movie at a used furniture store, of all places, and I decided to see if the movie would make another slam dunk a second time around. The main character of the movie is a Brooklyn man named David Greene (Kaplan, Welcome Back Kotter), who works at a neighborhood delicatessen but has dreams of being a basketball coach. One day, he gets an offer to coach basketball from the minor post secondary Nevada institution Cadwallader University. Apart from free room and board, the job pays just sixty dollars for every game David manages to win for the university - and nothing if his team loses - but David is promised an enviable coaching job if he can bring his team to win the state championships over current champions Nevada State. David eagerly accepts the job, but can't convince his wife Jan (Randee Heller, Mad Men) to come along and support him on what seems to her to be an impossible feat. David knows he has to do everything he can to form a winning team, which gets him to recruit a very eccentric bunch of players that include a woman posing as a man (Mavis Washington) and a preacher teenager (Warren, Hill Street Blues). But even when his team starts to prove to be a winner on the court, David still has the problem of convincing Nevada State to play his team for the championships... as well as the additional problem of trying to fix his severely strained marriage with his wife. It'll take some tricky planning on and off the court for David to reach his goals.

Though Gabe Kaplan starred in a few other movies, he never became a big star outside of his sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, and in fact a few years after this movie he essentially quit screen acting altogether to become a skilled professional poker player. Though that was his choice and he seemed happy with it, it's all the same kind of a shame because Fast Break shows that he had the stuff to be a big screen actor. Though it certainly helped that with this movie, Kaplan had a character that was very well written, by screenwriter Sandor Stern from a story by Marc Kaplan (any relation?) The character of David Greene is written to be a very likable person. He is a compassionate person, from giving a slice of bread to a homeless veteran to when he comforts one of his players who is in tears after an upsetting incident. But like you or I have for ourselves, he has ambitions for himself, his main one of course to have a career coaching basketball. And unlike many of us, he is willing to risk many things in his life to reach his personal goal; you can't help but admiring his courage and determination to put his livelihood on the line. And when he starts to risk it all to achieve his goal, we see that not only has he made plans to reach his goal, when he gets to an unexpected obstacle, he is very quick on his feet to think of a possible solution to the new challenge. Unlike so many protagonists in other movies (not just limited to comedies), David Greene is a smart protagonist, not just when it comes to coaching basketball. It would be hard to cheer on a stupid protagonist who achieves his goals, because it would seem like he didn't earn his goals. The message I got from this character was that if you use your brains, you will succeed - a refreshing change of pace from so many dim-witted comedies.

In other hands, the smart character of David Greene could have been made to be a turn-off. If David Greene's actions came with a sarcastic attitude attached to them, more likely than not he would have come across as unbearable. But thanks to Kaplan's performance, under the direction of Jack Smight (The Traveling Executioner), this is fortunately not the case. Kaplan's character may make plenty of comic one-liners and do some sneaky things, but Kaplan doesn't overplay any of this. There is a warm and gentle tone to everything he says and does. This includes the movie's deadly serious moments as well. The subplot concerning the strained relationship David has with his disapproving wife is pretty sober stuff. During these moments, Kaplan finds the right tone, showing that he is disappointed his wife will not join him in his dream, but at the same time showing that he has a dream that he wants to accomplish. Because of this, I not only sympathized with his, but could accept him both leaving his wife and using their nest egg which was originally intended for a house. That is not to say that this subplot completely works. I had a few issues with it. After David leaves for Nevada early in the movie, except for a short middle bit when he is seen picking up a picture of his wife Jan and shows by his expression that he misses her greatly, there is no further mention or reference to his wife until the last fifteen or so minutes of the movie, when she suddenly appears for (you guessed it) The Big Game. No prizes for guessing what happens between the two at the end of The Big Game, but it felt too pat and sudden. There should have been more shown going on between the two between the opening and the ending to show their evolving relationship. Had the movie, say, had a few scenes of the two talking over the telephone, maybe I could have accepted the sudden change of heart at the end of the movie. Though since the movie as it is runs one hundred and seven minutes in length, additional scenes such as those might have made the movie run too long.

In case you are wondering if Fast Break gets bogged down with serious stuff, let me assure you that it doesn't. The movie's primary aims are to deliver both laughs and basketball action, and it manages to succeed with both. The comedy portion of the movie comes in many different ways. As I indicated earlier, Kaplan delivers plenty of laughs with his character and attitude, but he is also complimented by a good supporting cast, my favorite being John Chappell (Brubaker), who as the dean of Cadwallader University is far from being a stuffy figure, and instead gleefully and hilariously encourages his new coach. And along the route to The Big Game, there are plenty of situations that deliver some solid laughs, like when during the trip to Nevada, Greene and his team have to dispose of some marijuana when the police come by. And how the female disguised-as-a-boy team member confuses a lot of people with "his" unmasculine behavior. (Though this does lead to some uncomfortable gay slurs here and there.) The basketball action, like the comedy, also isn't perfect. Fans of the sport may get impatient by the movie taking almost half of its running time before getting to the first real game, for one thing. Fortunately, what basketball action there is manages to be pretty compelling. The movie makes clear early on that the team needs work. Refreshingly, unlike other underdog sport movies, the players here are not incompetent, but they need training to smooth out their rough edges. This was a nice change from the usual. And after the players train and get out on the court for a real game, I found the various games genuinely exciting - and this is coming from someone who usually hates sports. Smight's direction seems pretty simple, shooting mostly from the sidelines and not using crutches like music for the most past. But he manages to show the hard work the various players are putting into the game, and this struggle to stay on top is very evident and really got to me. I don't know if Fast Break managed to convert me from hating sports, but any sport movie that manages to excite as well as make me laugh does make me think that sports can't be completely bad.

(Posted September 16, 2017)

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See also: Let It Ride, Our Winning Season, That Championship Season