Screenwriters Todd Baird and Brad Riddell bank that familiarity will breed affection rather than contempt. They adhere so strictly to the teen-sports genre that audiences can predict every turn as the struggling team from the Sunaquot reservation in upstate New York (a fictional seventh part of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Nations) competes against ace squads from cushy prep schools.
The filmmakers check off every box on the underdog-film list of requirements. A conflicted, semicomical coach? That's affable Brandon Routh as Joe Logan, a Sunaquot of mixed parentage and a former star attackman who lost his fighting spirit. He's been managing the tribe's casino and pushing for its expansion. The tribal council will approve new construction only if Logan reconnects to his Sunaquot soul in a manner of his father's choosing — which turns out to be coaching the reservation's team.
Misfit players who discover hidden talents? Check off that box, too. When Logan gets into gear and shows he cares, and runs his team up Defiance Rock to meet lacrosse guru Crooked Arrow (Dennis Ambritz), the Sunaquot squad acquires gumption and discipline. They go on a group vision quest and connect to their spirit animals. Unlikely competitors become potential game-changers — even the sole Caucasian kid, a scrawny fellow whose spirit animal is a squirrel. He's the son of the inspirational love interest (put a check in that box, too): the pretty high-school teacher (Crystal Allen) who loved Joe when he was pure of heart.
Director Steve Rash shines up the action scenes. But he should have given the formula's new ingredients more time and space to grow. "Crooked Arrows" provides tantalizing glimpses of contemporary Native American life. These kids wear long braids and assemble for tribal dances, yet they don't know the language, customs or beliefs of their ancestors. The idealistic teacher, like Logan, has to instill her students with pride; she instructs them on topics such as the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the U.S. founding fathers.
Joe's spunky kid sister, Nadie (Chelsea Ricketts), frequently saves the day for the Crooked Arrows, but there's no girls' team; we'd like to know what Nadie thinks about that. As he mends bonds with his traditionalist dad (Gil Burmingham), Logan moves from exploiting his Indian heritage to renewing his racial identity. He even changes the name on his vanity plates from "WAMPUM" to "CRKD ARWS." Yet the movie has a welcome touch of ambivalence about gambling. A bigger casino would end up funding a reservation hospital.
The speed and thump of the games should please lacrosse aficionados and stun those unfamiliar with the sport. But the game sequences are edited too much like highlights reels. You're left with the most glancing impression of the intricacy and headlong rhythms of the sport.
Still, "Crooked Arrows" has a touch of magic: a recurring sequence of Iroquois men in A.D. 1200 playing no-holds-barred lacrosse in an untrammeled forest. You see the roots of contemporary parries and feints as they slash their way through the woods. The images set off reverberations that come together like a thunderclap when the contemporary players retrace their ancestors' steps.
"Chariots of Fire" ran to box-office glory on the pastoral glamour of runners rhythmically pounding green fields or grey beaches. "Crooked Arrows" gives us mystical shots of Native Americans galloping in verdant forests like willful demigods. Whatever you think of this film, it'll make you wish for a prequel. You want to see more of lacrosse's origins.
MPAA rating PG-13 (for some suggestive references) Running time: 100 minutes