Will Smith Elevates Punch-Pulling "Concussion"

When American football is inevitably dialed down to a low contact, high scoring affair (think arena football minus the cranium-crushing hits), no one will credit Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” for said sea change. The writing isn’t new to the wall; whether it’s 10, 25, or 50 years from now, the National Football League will eventually become a husk of its heyday, the punishing physical impact of the game bleeding both former players of their livelihood and kids from youth football.

The movie – the first to tell the story of the Nigerian American doctor who uncovered the devastating effects of football on the human brain – is too little, too late as far as revelations go. (It’s not even particularly harsh on the NFL or its current commissioner-slash-bad-person Roger Goodell.) But its lateness doesn’t preclude its goodness, or negate Will Smith’s best performance in over a decade. And it’s about more than football, anyway. Above all else, “Concussion” is an immigrant story.

Landesman’s screenplay begins in 2002 with Nigerian immigrant Bennet Omalu (Smith) at a crossroads in his professional career. After bouncing around from Seattle to New York City in pursuit of medical residencies, he finds himself performing autopsies in the Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, PA) coroner’s office. His weird but kindly dialogue with the cadavers is a perfect introduction to Omalu’s addled genius (and nearly enough to erase memories of Will Smith’s “Bad Boys II” character groping a female cadaver’s breasts).

Omalu is soon dissecting the body of 50-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster (Michael Morse) – a local hero who devolved into drug-addicted transient faster than a Bo Jackson 40 yard dash – and begins to connect the dots. 50-year-old men don’t die like this. From there, Omalu’s suspicions of brain trauma quickly blossom from theory into scientific fact: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Smith frequently disappears into the role, coolly acquiescing to his co-stars (Albert Brooks as forensic consultant Cyril Wecht; Alec Baldwin as former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes) and treating Omalu’s thick accent with the lightest of touches. The actor’s recent run of disappointments melts away and we’re left with the performer we thought we had in the late 90s; gentle, charismatic, magnetic.

Even Omalu’s thinly drawn love story with fellow immigrant and future wife (played by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is compelling, underlining that “Concussion” isn’t really about football at all.

Accordingly, the scenes of former ball players melting down into confused, violent messes are the picture’s worst, ranging from cheesy to groanworthy. As re-enactments they’re dubious; as would-be dramatic points of emphasis they’re a disaster, belying the seriousness of their real life implications. Michael Morse’s prosthetic teeth alone make a case that his scenes shouldn’t have been included at all.

But the subject matter is the subject matter, and Landesman had little choice but demonstrate the effects of CTE, no matter how corny the translation. In turn, a movie that might have been really, really dopey is only sporadically dopey.

Although “Concussion” goes light on Roger Goodell (played briefly by Luke Wilson) and the corporate stooges that spent years covering up the health risks inherent in football, enough jabs land to make it a passable indictment. (A clip of a vintage ESPN segment called “Jacked Up” enthusiastically highlighting some big hits is particularly damning.)

Most importantly, Will Smith appears to be trying again, making movies that (sort of) matter and doing his best to make us believe. In him, in his work, and in why he was once the world’s biggest movie star.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 25, 2015
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Peter Landesman
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, David Morse, Luke Wilson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language)