Though the story is predictable and the chief villain too broadly drawn, and it certainly falls into that decidedly Disneyesque category of "uplifting `Rocky'-style sports pictures," there's something about "Iron Will" that allows it to transcend the stereotype and become a thoroughly entertaining film in its own right.
Based loosely on a true story, "Iron Will" begins in a small South Dakota farming community in 1917, as young Will Stoneman (Mackenzie Astin) is struggling to find himself. His parents want him to go to college, but he's not so sure.
Then, disaster strikes, and Will is forced to come up with some plan to save the family farm. He decides to enter a 522-mile, dead-of-winter dog-sled race from Winnipeg, Canada, to St. Paul, Minnesota, a trek that is also a survival test in the extreme. The top prize is $10,000, enough to save the farm and pay for college.
Will is not really in shape for the race, though, and he's much smaller in stature and younger than the other competitors. He's also the lone American. But he is determined and has the aid of a tough sled dog named Gus . . . though Gus doesn't warm up to Will very quickly.
The race itself provides plenty of adventure, of course, so the addition of a Scandinavian villain (George Gerdes), who is so nasty he might as well hiss, seems like overkill. Worse, Gerdes plays him way over the top, complete with an evil laugh that seems to come straight out of a comic melodrama. And when he goes after Will toward the end of the race, it seems almost like a parody of the chariot race in "Ben-Hur."
Nearly making up for this misstep, however, is Kevin Spacey as a hard-nosed American journalist assigned to the race, who is softened by the boy's courage and tenacity, and who comes up with the headline name, "Iron Will." Spacey is the film's greatest asset, delivering a first-rate performance.
Mackenzie Astin is also very good in the central role, bringing some genuine grit and personality to what might otherwise have been merely a good guy in a white hat. There is an edge here that suggests his ego is at work, as well as his own brand of stubborness, which makes Will more complicated and interesting than might be expected.
"Iron Will" joins "The Air Up There," "Cool Runnings" and "The Mighty Ducks" in Disney's lineup of sports family movies that seem to be coming at us monthly — if not weekly — these days.
But it's certainly one of the better efforts.
"Iron Will" is rated PG for violence, along with a couple of mild profanities and some mildly vulgar jokes.