23 Blast is based on the true story of a celebrated Corbin, Kentucky high school football player, Travis Freeman. Portrayed by up and coming heartthrob Mark Hapka, the real life Freeman loses his eyesight at the tender age of twelve. In this Hollywoodized version Freeman is already a popular young high school junior when he is stricken overnight with blindness due to a sinus infection spawned by bacterial meningitis.
Travis Freeman seemingly has it all. He is the pride of Corbin High School. He has a great family life with parents that love and support his athletic efforts, pretty girls that vie for his attention, and his best friend Jerry, whom he has been sharing the field with since childhood. However, while Travis is recognized for his discipline and accomplishment, Jerry flounders in Travis’ shadow as a jokester and a slacker who does not seem to care.
One fateful afternoon after a game, Travis suffers a debilitating headache and excuses himself from his friends. He awakens the next morning to find drooping eyelids and his family promptly takes him to the hospital where doctors determine that he has a serious infection that will require an immediate operation. The operation subsequently leaves Travis totally and irreversibly blind.
Travis is at first quite naturally devastated by his predicament. Enabled by his mother Mary (Kim Zimmer), Travis rejects mobility training and spends his time alone in his bedroom refusing to engage in anything productive. Enter in his mobility coach Patty (Becky Ann Baker), who will not be intimidated by Travis’ rejection and Mary’s denial. After Travis continues to miss his sessions with Patty, the brazen mobility coach shows up to the Freeman household uninvited and literally barges into the home where she finds Travis in his room and proceeds to will him into reclaiming his life.
Travis ultimately returns to school for his senior year and becomes comfortable in his new skin. He attends the football practices and even supplies advice to Coach Farris (Stephen Lang). It is not long before Farris’ wheels begin to spin and he comes to believe that Travis can still return to the game as a Center. He convinces Travis that it can be done, and to the dismay of the school officials Farris embarks on a mission to train Travis as a Center.
Directed by long-time character actor Dylan Baker (The Good Wife, Chicago Fire), 23 Blast is highlighted by outstanding performances from Mark Hapka as Travis, to Dylan Bakers’ wife Becky Ann as the mobility coach Patty. The standout however, is another veteran character actor Stephen Lang, who anchors the production as the unflappable coach Ferris. Lang, who can also be seen in the newly released The Good Marriage, handily carries 23 Blast as the adult lead, and it is high time that audiences get a chance to see Lang at the helm in a major feature film release. His many years upon the silver screen have rendered him one of the industry’s finest thespians. Between Baker and Lang, 23 Blast, unwittingly or not, serves as an exceptional cinematic heralding of the unsung talents who have long been the supportive backbone of Hollywood productions.
As well, Mark Hapka shines in the lead of 23 Blast as the triumphant Travis Freeman. More than a pretty-boy face, Hapka is polished and convincing, and his career is certain to benefit from this role. His youthful good looks are not likely to hinder him in the process.
Legendary daytime television actress Kim Zimmer was a delight to behold on the big screen as Travis’ mother Mary, and veteran actor Timothy Busfield delivers a solid and slightly comedic performance as Duncan, the pompous and yet slightly obtuse athletic director. Alexa PenaVega (Spy Kids), shines as well as Travis’ girlfriend Ashley who embraces Travis after he becomes blind.
23 Blast was written for the screen by Corbin, Kentucky natives, actor Bram Hoover (who portrayed Jerry) along with his mother Toni Hoover, who are personal friends with the real-life Freeman family. Toni, who has a background as an athletic coach took an interest in the Freeman story and the rest is history. Bram could very easily become the next Matt Damon. His performance as the beleaguered second-string quarterback Jerry, is alive with credibility, and like Hapka, his swarthy good-looks certainly cannot hurt him. The script was well-written and handily pieced together by Baker.
23 Blast simply works. The acting, writing and direction are first-rate. The theme alone of a young blind man playing football is enough of a draw for a variety of demographics. Rated PG-13, this family friendly film is also geared toward Christian and faith-based audiences for reasons that will become evident while viewing the film. 23 Blast is in limited release in selected theaters, but could readily stand its own in wide release. This could indeed happen if audiences can take the time to tear themselves away from the big studio productions to see this enjoyable film inspired by a true story.
By Janet Walters Levite