Running is a very hard sport to depict onscreen. Without a rousing score by Vangelis or the horns of “Gonna Fly Now” blasting through the speakers, it is very hard for any filmmaker or actor to show off a character’s speed or endurance in a memorable way. Leg power does not often translate to emotional power on the screen, which is one of the many problems facing 4 Minute Mile, a sports drama that barely goes the distance to be either inspirational or inspired.
Our plucky underdog is Drew Jacobs (Kelly Blatz), a track-and-field senior in Seattle who has a drug-dealing brother (Cam Gigandet), an absent mother (Kim Basinger, also mostly absent from the film) and a dead father. Besides these autobiographical details, there is not much to Drew. He likes to run and he hopes his speed can catapult him out of a life being a mule for his brother and into a scholarship to UC Berkeley. However, Drew also has a bit of an attitude – probably stemming from the lack of parental guidance – and quits his school track team.
Luckily, the man who holds the state’s high-school record for the four-minute mile lives a few doors down from Drew, notices the teen’s raw talent, and hopes to take him under his wing. This old runner’s name is Coleman (Richard Jenkins). His son died in a car accident, which Drew explains in a forced exchange of dialogue with another character that tells us the mentor’s back-story in a painfully stilted way. “I guess his glory days are behind him,” explains another teen that is hanging out with Drew and is never seen again.
Drew and Coleman have a kind of Daniel-Miyagi relationship going – the teacher even makes a “wax on, wax off” joke when Drew fixes up his boat. However, The Karate Kid focused on the detail of discipline, patience and resilience that Miyagi helped Daniel achieve over time. In 4 Minute Mile, Coleman does little but boss Drew around before raspy pep talks when the teen fails to meet his expectations.
Coleman is probably also a big fan of conventional sports dramas, since he always knows how to use platitudes to keep his star athlete focused. (One example: “You’ve got something in you that’s so deep in there, and you have to beat it. You got to face that fear.”) Jenkins has the gravitas to play a grizzled old athlete and mentor, but you can hear him straining to make the corny one-liners work. The actor is stuck in a tired trope and there is nowhere for him to run.
Meanwhile, Analeigh Tipton (Crazy, Stupid, Love) has a small role as Lisa, a cute girl who stands by the track with her arms crossed as she watches Drew hustle about. Tipton speaks with a clipped rhythm that tells us she is both nervous and eager to make a move on her crush. However, Blatz does not ignite the same chemistry with her.
The screenplay, from Jeff Van Wie (The Last Song) and Josh Campbell (making his debut) is a checklist of sports movie clichés, good and bad. The list, however, is missing one key element that could have lifted a lesser film like 4 Minute Mile into something more resonant: an endearing underdog. As Drew, Blatz shows off a limited emotional range. His inexpressive performance makes it hard for an audience to either root for him or get inside the character’s interior struggle. Sure, Drew puffs and perspires as he rushes through the town and around the track, but you seldom sense there is any drive behind his blank stare.
Meanwhile, French-Canadian director Charles-Olivier Michaud has little feel for how to transcend the trappings of the sports movie genre. 4 Minute Mile is visually bland. Cinematographer Jean-François Lord usually films Drew from the same three angles – a close-up from just behind the runner, a long shot tracking him in the center of the frame, and with the camera above him as the boy runs toward it. With little variety in these sequences, the action lacks feeling. Similarly, the original music, a more ambient and less triumphant variation of Explosions in the Sky’s score from Friday Night Lights, is just as moody and dull as Drew.
The one scene where 4 Minute Mile escapes its constraints of the genre is also one of the poorest in the film, a rushed and awkwardly staged climax where a major person in Drew’s life gets caught in the crossfire of a gun. The moment is supposed to inspire, finally, a bit of emotional anguish in the protagonist; however, this turning point fumbles due to unclear stage. The ineptitude of the storytelling infringes on the emotional rush the scene should give.
4 Minute Mile finally gets a bit of a rhythm going in the climactic run, which benefits from a ticking stop-watch playing over the sprinting to create suspense. However, by this point, it is hard to imagine most audiences will really care about the outcome. We have seen this story of athletic vigor told dozens of times before, in ways far more captivating and compelling. Despite some decent performances, Michaud’s drama is defeated by clichés.
Even with Richard Jenkins’s strong turn as a grizzled mentor and ex-athlete, 4 Minute Mile is a limp sports drama that fails to be inspirational or inspired.