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THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, Bruce McGill, Joel Gretsch, J. Michael Moncrief
Director: Robert Redford
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, DTS 5.1 Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Dreamworks
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: April 3, 2001

Film ***1/2

I’ve never been much of a golfer. I have attempted to get into the sport on several occasions, and I could never seem to improve my strategies on those attempts. I have occasionally traveled to nearby Augusta, Georgia to attend several Masters tournaments, which really are a sight to be seen. With that said, you’d probably think that a movie using the game of golf as a metaphor for life wouldn’t interest me in the least, but I was wrong. Aside from the Kevin Costner comedy Tin Cup, which was very enjoyable, another movie has come along that captures the game in sheer beauty. Robert Redford has crafted a stunning, beautifully filmed movie about the game in The Legend of Bagger Vance, based on the novel of the same name by Steven Pressfield. You don’t even have to be a golf fanatic to enjoy this movie, because the movie deals mostly with the theme of self-redemption, in this case a fallen soul who was once a golf icon to those who saw him play. Redford does a masterful job at setting the tone for this movie and executing it.

The story takes place in Savannah, Georgia during the first years of the great depression. The depression wasn’t entirely bad news for Savannah’s upper-class citizens, but it has a harsh effect on one man. He creates a vast, grandly constructed golf course, and he soon goes broke as a result. The man then commits suicide, leaving all of his business affairs in the hands of his daughter, Adele (Charlize Theron). Facing the possibility of losing everything, Adele plans to risk all of her money on a golf tournament to be held on her father’s course, letting everyone in town that his course is still in top and prestigious form. Invited to this tee-off are two of the greatest golfers in the world: Walter Hagan (Bruce McGill) and Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch).  The people of Savannah demand that a player represent them in the match, and young Hardy Greaves believes the town has one in Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). Hardy’s dad once idolized Junuh, hailing him as the greatest golfer that ever existed. Junuh himself has kept himself hidden from the social life following a harsh experience in World War I, and now resides to poker playing and frequent drinking. Both Hardy and Adele, who was once in love with Junuh, persuade him to participate in the tournament, which he soon agrees to.

Having been away from the game for some time, Junuh believes he has lost his swing, to which he receives a little help in getting back. One night while practicing his driving shots, a man appears out of nowhere and already senses that Rannulph needs some assistance in retrieving what he has lost. The man is Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who helps in rehabilitating Junuh, and becomes his caddy, too. Bagger Vance has unique theories on the game, relating them much the game of life, which will hopefully help Junuh, who is need of finding his place not only on the golf course, but in life as well.

The one aspect of The Legend of Bagger Vance is the way Redford and screenwriter Jeremy Leven approach this material in a most unconventional manner. It would’ve been very easy to present Jones and Hagan, the two opposing golfers, as mean-spirited adversaries, but they aren’t. They are there to enjoy the game, and themselves and nothing more. There’s even a wonderful moment where Bobby Jones tells Rannulph what terrific pro he is in the game. I also appreciated that Redford strayed from using any racist characterizations, even though such problems may have existed in this time and setting. It’s more or less a social fantasy, showing the way things could’ve been.

The movie is filled with some very nice performances, particularly from Will Smith as the title character. Bagger Vance is actually not in the movie a great deal, but Smith is in top, gracious form, making up for his previous debacle, Wild Wild West. For me, the real stars of the movie are the directing and especially, Michael Ballhaus’ stunning cinematography, which captures the beauty of Savannah in the 30s, and beautiful green of the golf course. The camera is used in some remarkable ways during the golfing scenes that do nothing short of leaving you completely awe-inspired. This is some great cinematography that truly deserved an Oscar nomination.

Robert Redford is a truly gifted filmmaker, and always brings a unique touch to the movies he directs. The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a fitting entry in Redford’s impressive body of work, which includes such monumental classics as Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It, and Quiz Show. This movie is a pure, poetic piece of work.

Video ***1/2

Dreamworks has created a mostly gorgeous transfer, which brings them to 9 under par (just kidding). After I was a little letdown at the transfers for What Lies Beneath and The Contender, I was starting to think that they might not bring back the greatness they once had. Now, they are now very much back in the game, along with their fabulous job on their recent release, Almost Famous. Picture quality is stunning at times, particularly in the scenes on the golf course, upon which the greens shine beautifully. The only thing keeping it from a full, four-star rating is a little noticeable grain in a couple of darkly lit scenes. Other than that, a grand looking disc at best.

Audio ***1/2

This is a movie made up mostly of dialogue, but it’s in the gaming scenes where The Legend of Bagger Vance comes to life on DVD. The Dolby Digital presentation provides terrific use of capturing distinct sounds, particulary in the golfing sequences where several slow motion shots are used, and background noise is heard very well. The beautiful musical score by Rachel Portman is also captured wonderfully in this presentation.

Features **1/2

I would’ve really looked forward to a Robert Redford commentary, but the extras on this disc are better than none. Included is a brief presentation called “Robert Redford: Insight Into Bagger Vance”, which is essentially a montage of production photos, with commentary by Redford. Also included is as brief production featurette, a theatrical trailer and teaser for the film.

Summary:

The Legend of Bagger Vance was one of last year’s most overlooked films, which really deserves a look in this wonderful DVD presentation. It’s one of the best movies to come from Robert Redford, and it is a film that is likely to assault your senses with its beauty and wonder.