Will Ferrell looks an awful lot like Bill Walton, so it only made sense for him to appear in a basketball movie sooner or later. Fortunately for moviegoers (and for Ferrell’s comedic tendencies), that basketball debut came in the form of Semi-Pro, a hilarious tale about a struggling fictional franchise during the ABA’s final season. The ABA was all about showmanship, which fits Ferrell to a “T,” and it hit its prime in the 1970s, an era Ferrell can pantomime with ease. But more important, the ABA was filled with a unique cast of characters and promoters, a fact that lends itself very well to an over-the-top film such as this.
Semi-Pro follows the comical yet oddly heartwarming story of the Flint Michigan Tropics, a cellar-dwelling ABA team that’s going to be dissolved upon the ABA’s merger with the NBA. Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, a one-hit-Motown-wonder-turned-ABA-owner/coach/player, who ends up being a much more effective — and hilarious — promoter than he does a coach or player. Gee, ya think? During the course of the film, Ferrell implores his team to avoid scoring 125 points so he can avoid giving everyone corndogs; he dresses his team like flamingos, palm trees and seahorses for a choreographed halftime show; he wrestles a bear; and he trades his team’s washing machine for a washed-up point guard played by Woody Harrelson.
One of those moves actually works out. Guess which one.
Under Harrelson’s guidance, the Flint Michigan Tropics learn to play as a team and act like a family, two things that Jackie Moon, no matter how hard he tried, could never get the team to accomplish — especially when he keeps bringing his nude wife into the locker room for “inspiration.” Although the Tropics don’t make it to the NBA, they defeat the odds to win fourth place as well as the Flint Michigan Megabowl, yet another of Moon’s outlandish but effective promotions. In the process, the team also wins the heart of the town.
End-credits sappiness aside, Semi-Pro is generally entertaining, although it has more than its fair share of set-your-brain-next-to-you-for-a-moment situations. Even a few characters seem either absurdly farcical or insufficiently fleshed out, and in some cases, a little bit of both. Amazingly, Ferrell’s slapstick humor is kept in check, coming out just when it needs to but not to the point of overkill that Harrelson’s humor (and semi love story) don’t shine through, or that Andre Benjamin’s storyline of an aspiring pro baller who learns to become a good teammate doesn’t warm the heart. Still, let’s be honest here: this is a comedy. A Will Ferrell comedy, at that. Rude, crude and sexual is the name of the game, and that’s no different here, even when the subject is basketball.
Unfortunately, the name of the game with a Blu-ray movie is “high definition,” and while Semi-Pro has the requisite 1080p VC-1 encoded video, the amount of grain and apparent lens pushing just can’t be hidden by Ferrell’s hair or humor. It’s entirely possible that the grain was intentional, since the film takes place in the 1970s, but if that’s the case, it’s one artistic decision that actually backfires in this reviewer’s opinion. The opening three to four minutes of Semi-Pro are incredibly crisp, with good color saturation, crisp-but-not-augmented edges, and not a single detectable pixel. Then you move away from static camera pans and get into the movie itself, and the whole display falls apart. Normally if a film transfer shows some grain, it’s either obvious in dark sequences or in high-contrast scenes. In Semi-Pro, almost the entire film has a slight fuzz to it (save for a few brief scenes), to the point that Twentieth Century Fox’s release of Predator on Blu-ray actually has much a crisper presentation — and that movie is ancient, comparatively speaking.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio holds up much better, though it’s definitely at its best during Jackie Moon’s Billboard hit “Love Me Sexy,” when the effects envelop you like a concert, and during a three-second sequence when a gun inadvertently goes off during a poker game and the bullet pings around the room. The high/low balance of the audio track is also well executed, although we would’ve liked to hear a bit more focus on the on-court audio and echoes of the basketball dribbling up and down the court.
In spite of its two-disc Blu-ray release, Semi-Pro has a good number of bonus features yet still falls somewhat short in the length category. And no, Dick Pepperfield, this is one case where it really doesn’t matter how you use the bonus features. The first disc includes two versions of Semi-Pro, the R-rated theatrical version and the unrated “Let’s Get Sweaty” Edition. The unrated version includes seven minutes of additional footage, none of which is included in the deleted scenes on disc two, so the only way to see these sequences is to watch the Let’s Get Sweaty Edition. The new sequences don’t add much substance, but because they almost exclusively have to do with seeing Jackie Moon’s wife’s “round mounds of rebound,” the additional scenes certainly add to the “man’s man” tone of the Tropics’ locker room.
Disk Two is where the majority of the bonus features lie, all of which are divided into “chapters.” The first, called “From the Cutting Room,” provides a pleasant surprise with its 1080p video and DTS-HD Master Audio and includes four deleted or alternate scenes and three improvisational outtakes (15:16). The alternate opening, shown here as one of the four scenes, was wisely jettisoned, as it “told” more than “showed” the sorry state of affairs with Jackie Moon and the Tropics find themselves at the beginning of the film. The halftime show is also a nice diversion, but it, too, was wisely cut, and the old ending just plain falls flat. The improve sequences are generally more entertaining, particularly the scenes with radio announcer Dick Pepperfield and his partner, who have some of the best comedic timing and chemistry this side of George and Gracie. The Tropics Weekly improv outtakes and the improv scenes with Andy, Amy and Will just seem tired, but it might just be because they have a tough act to follow.
Six Behind The Scenes featurettes, all presented in 1080i, comprise “chapter two” in the bonus features. The first, A Short History of the ABA (6:50), is just that: a history of the ABA that includes archival footage, interviews with three former ABA players (including George Gervin, who has a cameo in the film) and conversations with select members of the cast and crew. Did you know the ABA invented the three-point line and the slam dunk? You will after watching this featurette (or after reading that sentence).
Re-creating the ABA (12:46) is the second featurette in this chapter, but it’s focused more on finding the right cast and training them to play like ABA players in the 1970s than one might expect. One-third of the bonus feature is spent discussing set production, decor and graphics, but the repetitive nature of talking about training camp and basketball drills doesn’t really seem to warrant the time allotted to the feature. “Love Me Sexy”: The Story Behind the One-Hit Wonder (5:24) provides some nice insight into writing and producing Jackie Moon’s theme song, and it’s amazing to see how a producer/arranger like Nile Rodgers can not only create a song that “feels” 70s, but can do so by using a melody created by none other than Will Ferrell himself.
Bill Walton Visits the Set (2:40) is a mercifully short documentary about Walton’s interview of Will Ferrell for ESPN, while Four Days in Flint (5:38) is an equally benign featurette about how the production team had to manufacture snow and work with the people of Flint, Michigan, rather than against them during filming. Oddly, The Man Behind Semi-Pro (23:56), by far the longest bonus feature, is also one of the weakest, as it continues to leave you wondering “OK, so who was the man behind the movie?” At first the feature talks about the writer, then the director, then the stars, and by the end it’s apparent this is really just a “catch all” feature that simply needed a clever name. None of the footage or interviews are bad, they’re just not cohesively presented, which makes the disc’s longest feature seem like it’s most disorganized.
The third “chapter” in the bonus features is merely Subtitles, and the fourth, called Promotions, includes a “Love Me Sexy” Music Video (1:59), all three Trailers (teaser, trailer and red band trailer) and a segment called Flint Tropics Hot Talk with Dick Pepperfield (2:39) (which has absolutely atrocious, nigh-four-bit color, by the way). The true All Star in the final chapter, if not all the bonus features, is a Blu-ray exclusive feature called Super Agility Trainer, which is essentially a Pong knockoff that takes place on a half-court basketball court. There are no multiplayer options, online leaderboards or anything overly modern, but the game itself is a fantastic Pong clone and an oh-so-appropriate feature for this period film. If New Line could transfer this to a Flash-based game on their Web site, they’d have a sure-fire winner.
The same can’t be said for Semi-Pro itself, as this type of movie is really suited for specific demographics. Fortunately, we count ourselves among them. Fart jokes, sex jokes, manly commentary and sports…what’s not to like? The bonus features, while copious in number, don’t account for much time, and the grainy video quality — whether intentional or not — is quite surprising for a New Line Blu-ray release. But when you start watching the “Let’s Get Sweaty” Edition of Semi-Pro, you’re somehow transported to a time where “politically correct” meant you completed your ballot accurately and where guys could just “be guys.” Sure, we all had RCA outputs, rabbit-ear antennae and 8-tracks. So do the characters in this film. And somehow they, like we watching them, still had fun.
- Score: 8
— Jonas Allen