"Rookies", Japan's top-grossing film of 2009, isn't so much bad as it is bland. It's a plastic product assembled from a checklist of hit film tropes, an experience engineered to trigger certain responses in the audience. That in itself doesn't make it bad, merely mercenary. What makes it bad is how poorly the pieces fit together, and how little soul the film has.
Based on a hit TV drama, "Rookies" follows a ragtag group of players on a high school baseball team as they prepare for their senior year. They have the opportunity to play in a prestigious baseball tournament, compete against the best teams in the country, and achieve certain glory if they win. But—and there's always a 'but' in films like this—the team is short two players. The new transfer student has a storied baseball pedigree, but he doesn't feel the team is dedicated or talented enough for him to join. Can the guys win him over? "Rookies" also follows the travails of their coach/teacher as he guides them through the season. He has his share of challenges because the guys are rebels and slackers and, though talented, they lack discipline. Or something. Can he coach them to the big game, and maybe teach them something about life in the process? Commence groaning now.
If this sounds like every other high school sports film you've ever seen, I apologize: That's one huge spoiler. But the point of a movie like "Rookies" isn't to provide plot twists or create memorable characters, but to reinforce all the clichés of the sports movie in such a way that the product feels as comfortable as a well-worn pair of sneakers. The problem is that it doesn't, or maybe that the sneakers its emulating were designed by a committee of accountants and opportunists. In all candor, I haven't seen a movie that panders this shamelessly to the expectations of a lazy audience since Michael Bay's "Armageddon." It hits so many sappy audience cues that I was genuinely shocked they didn't give one of the teenage players cancer; that's the only popular Japanese film trick the producers left out. The last 15 minutes of this film are as shameless as anything ever seen onscreen, and that includes "Crying Out Love in the Center of the World." Seriously. It's pure hollow sentiment-as-spectacle.
Baseball is excruciatingly boring in real life, but it's the most cinematic of all sports. Rather, it's usually cinematic. Here it's clinical, just a backdrop with marks for the actors to hit. And what roles they play: It's as if the filmmakers removed all the characters from "Crows Zero" and placed them in a more female-moviegoer-friendly context. The young men in question are still ill-mannered brutes who express themselves by screaming and snarling, but here they're throwing pitches as well as punches. Now the girls in the audience don't have to stomach all the blood, bruising and nastiness of gang warfare in order to see their heartthrobs! It's genius—or would be, were the execution less clumsy and awkward. The actors are all game enough; I'm not sure who appeared on the TV show and who's been brought in for the movie version, and it really doesn't matter. They're all earnest and sincere and shiny and handsome as they yell at one another, or the opponent, or the sky. The movie is populated almost completely by guys; When an actress does stumble onscreen (Haruka Ayase and Kazue Fukiishi, both wasted) they have a line, maybe two, then they disappear fast.
The usual challenges are overcome, and the guys play in a big game. I was unmoved, even bored. How can this be the film that beat "Departures" at the box office? It seems to me that there are three ways for a film to be a huge success:
1. Tell an original or engrossing story well 2. Pander to lowest common denominator tastes 3. Capture the zeitgeist and stay out of the way of people enjoying it
"Rookies" manages to hit numbers 2 and 3, and the result resonated with audiences. The producers certainly aren't worried about the opinion of a blogger, not with receipts like those. I'm just hopeful that when the inevitable sequel hits theaters, the audience goes in expecting more than a syrupy rehash of the same tired plot points.