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by Jay Seaver

"Certain sports cliches are universal, but so is the excitement of it."
3 stars

Sports movies have the same problem as sports broadcasting in a lot of ways - particularly, in how both too much desire to make the results a reflection of one's chosen narrative and too much worship of the tough-love coach. Pair that up with a story meant to get the audience waving flags, and you can wind up with something deceptive and even damaging to young athletes looking for heroes. There are moments in "Leap" when the filmmakers seem very well aware of these shackles, even if they can't quite see their way from escaping them entirely. And it's not like they have to, because most sports stories worth telling have a great final stretch built-in.

This one opens at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where two juggernauts in the sport of women's volleyball - the People's Republic of China and the United States - will face off, with there being a little extra excitement because Team USA coach Lang Ping (Gong Li), known as "The Iron Hammer", is a Chinese sports icon and longtime friends with China's coach Chen Zhonghe (Huang Bo). The two are longtime friends, going back to 1979, when Lang Ping (Lydia Bai Lang) was an 18-year-old newly-recruited to the national team - though coach Yuan Weimin (Wu Gang) won't let her actually practice with a ball until she builds up her strength - and Chen (Peng Yuchang) is a former player just brought on as a "hitting partner" to help mimic the play of specific opponents.

The first half of the film is an often-impressive-looking slog, as director Peter Chan Ho-Sun and writer Zhang Ji follow the patriotic sports story template almost to a fault, with the harsh coach, the unrefined athlete who needs to work harder than everyone else, the timely injury that gives that newcomer a chance to shine, and the opposite-sex supporting character whom one would probably surmise was a love interest if the movie ended with the 1981 World Cup. It's utterly predictable even if one doesn't know the outcome and even if Chan doesn't drench it in nationalist posturing as thoroughly as some might - there's a bit of a wink to how the propaganda posters that show up in the background influence the style where he could be unironically sincere about it. There's been enough money spent that the period details look great, both in terms of bright 1980s colors and how the Japanese team they face in the finals all seem to have nicer uniforms and hairstyles to highlight China's attempt to be taken seriously. It doesn't necessarily help that while Lang Ping's real-life daughter Lydia is a fine athlete in her own right, she's clearly a first-time actress and doesn't click as playing the same person as Gong Li in the same way that Peng Yuchang does in sharing the same role as Huang Bo.

A lot of the material that frustrates in the first half is improved immensely in the second, if not necessarily to the extent one might hope. Consider, for instance, how the fast-forward between 1981 and 2008 is kind of insane, spending absolutely zero time on why Lang Ping would choose to come to America in the late 1980s when it sure seems like that should be a major part of her story, along with how competing in that decade put so much wear on her body that it becomes something regularly mentioned later. The second half often feels like a reaction to the first in terms of how Lang is seemingly determined that the next generation of Chinese athletes has a different experience than she did - best exemplified by how, unless the subtitles deceive me, Lang Ping is the only character who gets a name in 1979, with the other players referred to by their uniform number by "coach" and "hitting partner", while everyone gets a little attention in 2013 - but between the time jump and lack of introspection in the first half, it seldom comes across as two parts of the same story. Instead, it often seems like the filmmakers simultaneously want to make a film about how to improve on a previous era's shortcomings but can't actually admit that that era had faults because, after all, it's still China. It's a tricky line that they don't quite manage to walk, even with Gong Li and Huang Bo on board and giving enough to their characters that one can easily pick up what they're not saying.

The thing is, sports are built to be involving, and when the filmmakers get what works, they can be so much fun that even when a movie is generally a mess, it's hard not to get into a hyped-up Big Game. Chan and Zhang are kind of clever in structuring the movie so that this one climaxes in the quarterfinal match of the 2016 Olympics, because that's where they played Brazil on their home turf, thus making the second half's finale parallel the match against Japan in Tokyo that ended the first. They also appear to have recruited a large portion of the actual 2016 teams to play themselves before recreating their game (and, presumably, other talented players beyond Lydia Bai for the first half), which means that there's no need for doubling or deceptive camera angles; the audience is just seeing the game played by world-class athletes, to the extent that when Chan and his editors sometimes get in the way, it's frustrating because the game they've done well to set up is engrossing on its own.

Overall, I do like the movie well enough when it's being pure sports, and admire the attempt by the filmmakers to honor Lang and her original teammates, especially when it pushes back against familiar toxic coach tropes. I feel like the filmmakers might have really had something had they concentrated on the later years and used flashbacks to inform that; the movie as it is winds up being bloated and a fair bit too timid, especially removed from its home audience.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33842&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/15/20 15:20:56
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  25-Sep-2020 (PG)

Directed by
  Peter Ho-Sun Chan

Written by
  Ji Zhang

  Li Gong
  Bo Huang
  Gang Wu
  Yuchang Peng
  Lydia Bai

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