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Net gain; Despite cliches, 'Crooked Arrows' hits the target

If you go to the First Niagara Center for a Buffalo Bandits lacrosse game, you'll see action on a field measuring 85 feet wide by 200 feet long. It's fast, it's fun, it's hard hitting.

But, it's nowhere near as awesome as lacrosse was originally played judging by the opening sequence of the new underdog sports yarn "Crooked Arrows." We're transported back to the year 1200, where "the creator's game" is being played out on the sprawling land of the Haudenosaunee Nation. Through forests and fields, up hills and through water, a large group of young tribesmen are running, jumping and hitting each other without missing a beat.

Cut to the same beautiful land in modern day where the reservation's lacrosse team is in no danger of ending its winless streak and the local low-brow casino has dancing barmaids and offensive patrons.

Flying in to save the day in an expensive suit and bright red sports car bearing the vanity plate WAMPUM is Joe Logan (played by Brandon Routh, still in fine "Superman" form). A Sunaquat Indian, he works for the casino owner and real estate developer Mr. Geyer (Tom Kemp), who wants to "help" the poor Indian tribes by buying up their "useless" land.

"Tell your people whatever they want to hear," he tells Joe.

It's obvious Geyer is a sleaze, but Joe is blinded by the casino money that has already built a new school for his reservation and can do more. (We later learn of the personal tragedy driving Joe to get a hospital built.)

His family and friends can only see Joe's flashy lifestyle, not his best intentions. Even his his ex-high school girlfriend, Julie (Crystal Allen), now a Ph.D., author and teacher on the reservation, gives it to him. "Joe Money pimping out his people," Dr. Julie sweetly lashes out at Joe. His terse retort: "If I'm a pimp, what does that make you?" Ouch.

But Joe builds his case that the money will help the tribe, so the Tribal Council will sell the extra land -- with a caveat. "You can expand the casino if you will re-examine your spirit and prove yourself worthy," he's told, and it has to be in a way of his father's choosing.

For his "spirit quest," Joe must coach the reservation's winless lacrosse team. When he balks, hinting at a painful connection with the sport, dad (played with wisdom by Gil Birmingham) won't budge. "They call it the medicine game for a reason -- let it heal you."

And so, of course, it will. From there we pretty much know the drill, but "Crooked Arrows" finds its mark by being more than another nondescript sports movie. It gains depth from its setting and the running thread of the injustices to the indigenous people. Many players on the movie team are authentic lacrosse players. (Writer Todd Baird drew on his experiences playing lacrosse with producer Mitchell Peck for their high school team, the Collegiate School in Virginia.)

"Crooked Arrows" refers to the idea that the path you'll take in life isn't always straight, but there's nothing wrong with a crooked arrow as long as it finds its way. That's much like this film. The script loses its bearings when it falls into cliche and tries so hard to make a point, that it becomes trite instead of profound. ("When did the Indians start playing lacrosse?" one particularly clueless white woman asks her friend.)

But it gets back on track simply by being sincere and well meaning and then you can't help but like it.




2 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Brandon Routh, Gil Birmingham, Crystal Allen    

DIRECTOR: Steve Rash    

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes    

RATING: PG-13 for some suggestive references    

THE LOWDOWN: To close a business deal and win his father's approval, a mixed-blood Native American coaches a lacrosse team.