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‘Miracle’ sticks to a formula

Kurt Russell stars as the coach of the 1980 Olympic hockey team. By John Hartl

Coaching legend Herb Brooks was 66 when he died in a traffic accident last summer. Kurt Russell does his curmudgeonly best to immortalize him in “Miracle,” an overlong, Disneyfied version of the U.S. ice hockey team’s unexpected triumph over the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics.

Looking unusually weathered and crinkly-eyed, Russell tears into the role of their coach, giving the movie what momentum it has. He can’t do much to make Brooks' locker-room pep talks sound less formulaic than they are, and he doesn’t really demonstrate why Brooks was able to create an effective team from a group of young, disorganized athletes.

He’s frequently stuck mouthing platitudes about making his team as “fluid” and “creative” as the Russian team, and pushing his boys to attack the Soviets rather than allowing them to do the attacking. Still, if his dialogue is never more inspirational than “we shut them down because we can,” Russell’s dynamic presence makes Brooks a formidable character.

“Miracle” has been conceived as a period piece, similar to “Seabiscuit,” that begins with reminders of a long-ago state of the union: 1979-1980, during the waning days of the Carter administration. The director, Gavin O'Connor ("Tumbleweeds"), places a heavy emphasis on the enmity between the Soviets, who had just invaded Afghanistan, and the Americans, who were soon to be told they were battling an evil empire.

Not quite as banal as ‘The Mighty Ducks’The script by Eric Guggenheim (making his debut) wants "Miracle" to be about “more than a game,” and it is — but not quite in the way he may have intended. By including international humiliations such as the Iranian hostage-taking and the Soviets’ doomed mission in Afghanistan, the movie just calls attention to the consequences of those events. And they begin to loom much larger than any hockey game.

It doesn’t help that, aside from Brooks, there are almost no characters. Patricia Clarkson, assigned to play Brooks’ long-suffering wife, gives perhaps her weakest performance to date; the actress who brings refreshing vitality to such independent films as “High Art” and “The Station Agent” seems utterly defeated by this stereotypical major-studio role.

The team players remain just that. While it may have been Brooks’ intention to suppress their individuality and mold them into a team as tight as the Russians’ group, that tactic doesn’t lead to strong drama. The boys are so bland, and they look so much alike, that it’s difficult to keep them apart. It’s not that the actors aren’t appealing; it’s just that Guggenheim gives them so little to do.

If “Miracle” is never quite as banal as “The Mighty Ducks” or as misguided as “Mystery, Alaska” (both of them also Disney productions), it’s a long way from George Roy Hill’s “Slapshot,” still the best hockey movie ever made.

Hill was mocking the kind of corrupted ice hockey games that made gladiator-like violence the main attraction. Brooks, whose Olympics triumph came three years after “Slapshot” was released, was distancing himself from exactly that kind of behavior. His attempts to demonstrate that difference might have made a more interesting film than “Miracle.”