`Rudy' Is A Football Film In The `Rocky' Mode

Movie review XXX 1/2 "Rudy," with Sean Astin, Charles S. Dutton, Ned Beatty, and Jason Miller. Directed by David Anspaugh, from a screenplay by Angelo Pizzo. Varsity, Grand, Crossroads. "PG" - Parental guidance suggested, due to mild profanity.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Astin when he visited the Seattle International Film Festival last year to support the film "Where the Day Takes You," in which he gives a frighteningly authentic performance as a heroin junkie.

The contrast between Astin in that film and Astin offscreen is a testament to his developing talent. The son of Patty Duke and John Astin is filled with an infectious enthusiasm that is innocent without being naive. He knows the ups and downs of the movie business (after all, he did star in "Encino Man"), but he's got a tenacious optimism that indicates a promising career, which now includes two impressive efforts as a director of short films.

Those qualities make Astin a perfect choice for the title role in "Rudy," a terrifically rousing movie based on the true story of Daniel E. "Rudy" Ruettiger, a working-class kid from Joliet, Ill. who, despite his family's well-meaning discouragement, lousy grades, diminutive stature and unimpressive athletic skills, scrambled against all odds to fulfill his dream of playing football for the University of Notre Dame.

That's all anyone needs to know about "Rudy" before seeing it. Fitting squarely into the "Rocky" mold, but boosted by its basis in fact (and a fine Jerry Goldsmith score), the film revives its familiar storyline with crystalline purity, focusing on a good-natured underdog whose stubborn persistence is sweet but never saccharine. A testimonial to the benchwarmers of the world, "Rudy" doesn't just "win one for the Gipper." It slaps the Gipper with a hearty high-five and buys the Gipper a post-victory brew.

Charting a perfectly paced rise to inspirational heights, the director-writer team of David Anspaugh and Angelo Rizzo invite comparison to their equally uplifting "Hoosiers," but "Rudy" earns its own identity by putting the principal of victory into a refreshing perspective. The film is so effective because Rudy is never seen as mock-heroic, and he's never lifted toward unrealistic achievement. He simply does the very best he can.

Unlike "The Program," the other current football movie which pales in comparison, "Rudy" (which spans 1972-'75) is uncompromisingly truthful to its story and characters. Graced with Anspaugh's respect for authenticity, there's not a false note from anyone in the well-chosen cast, which includes Ned Beatty as Rudy's dad, whose disapproval of Rudy's dream is a cautious act of love; Charles S. Dutton as the stadium groundskeeper who offers quiet support; and Jason Miller ("The Exorcist") as legendary coach Ara Parseghian, who rewards Rudy's tenacity with a place on the varsity practice squad.

Not surprisingly, the film owes its existence to the real Rudy Reuttiger, who now works as a motivational speaker. After seeing "Hoosiers," he pursued Anspaugh and Rizzo with the same gusto he brought to Notre Dame. His sincerely unselfish desire to bring his story to the screen paid off, and you can't help but feel happy for him.