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Gimmicky 'Lights' fails to reach its potential

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS — ** 1/2 — Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Derek Luke; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, vulgarity, brief gore, racial epithets, sex); see Playing at local theaters for theaters.

"Friday Night Lights" is at odds with itself.

Though the film wants desperately to be a smart, cynical sports drama — along the lines of the scathing "North Dallas Forty" or the recent documentary "Go Tigers!" (as opposed to the more formulaic and sentimental but crowd-pleasing "Remember the Titans") — it does some surprisingly dumb things that undermine its best intentions.

"Friday Night Lights" suffers from some of the most gimmicky filmmaking in recent memory, with music-video-style editing and jittery camera work that really serves no purpose other than to induce headaches.

Given that, it's hard to know exactly how to feel about the film. Fortunately, the story is just compelling enough, its performances convincing enough, to help.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Gary Gaines, coach of the Permian Panthers high school team in Odessa, Texas. Big things are expected from his squad. In fact, the community won't settle for anything less than the state championship.

Luckily, he has a star running back, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), whose legs may carry them there. That is, until he's injured at the start of the season, which puts his career — and the team's optimism — in peril.

That puts tremendous pressure on the coach, who suddenly has to change his offensive strategy, which in turn puts pressure on the team's quarterback, Mike Winchell (Lucas Black).

In addition to his attention-deficit directing style, filmmaker Peter Berg also overdoes things a bit with some of the football action; there's no way any of the players could survive some of these hits.

But the story is a good one, and the relatively brisk pacing — and the fact that, unlike most football movies, it's less than two hours long — certainly help.

So does the cast. Thornton knows when to take the lead and when to defer to his young co-stars, whose performances are all solid (the obvious standouts are Black and Luke). Even musician Tim McGraw has some effective moments in a supporting role as a football father.

"Friday Night Lights" is rated PG-13 for strong scenes of athletic violence (vicious football hits) and some gunplay, occasional use of strong profanity, crude slang terms and racial epithets, brief gore and simulated sex (as well as some other sexual contact). Running time: 117 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com