Semi-Tough is one of four sports-related films from the 1970s that have been on my movie-queue list for quite some time. (I finally saw The Longest Yard over the Christmas break, so now all I've got left are Slap Shot and North Dallas Forty.)
This movie is openly scorned by fans of Dan Jenkins' comic novel about drinkin', smokin', cussin', screwin'...oh yeah, and playing football. By all accounts, the book is riotous affair, loaded with sex, racial slurs and all manner of hilariously inappropriate content. Clearly, something has been lost in the translation to film, which is largely about the relationship between Miami gridiron heroes Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson, and the team owner's daughter, Jill Clayburgh. Aside from suffering from a case of Tourette's Syndrome (someone, usually Clayburgh, has to say "fuck" or "asshole" every couple of minutes), the movie is rather tame by today's standards. The three leads start out as close Platonic friends/roommates, a la Three's Company, but when Clayburgh and Kristofferson pair off, Reynolds does a slow burn that lasts all the way through to the predictable payoff. I would have been fine with a simple love-triangle flick with a football backdrop, but the filmmakers decided to add a subplot satirizing the EST movement of the Seventies, as well as a depiction of rolfing—the first of which seems ridiculously out of place in this film, and neither of which would make the slightest bit sense today to anybody under the age of, say 45.
There's a very decent movie buried here somewhere. I enjoyed the chemistry between the leads; Burt Reynolds (doing another football flick three years after Longest Yard) is at his cowboy-hat-wearing, gum-chewing best, and Jill Clayburgh is surprisingly sexy—I've never had that reaction to this actress before. And there are several scenes I thought played very well, along with a few memorable lines. However, all of the actors were right around 40 years old at the time, which strikes me as a little long in the tooth to be NFL players, and the various parts of the film don't really mesh as a whole. There should have been a lot more football in the movie, more of the great Robert Preston (as the slightly batty team owner) and none of the material involving Bert Convy as a self-help guru, which I found embarrassingly unfunny. (Note: turns out I had seen some of those scenes on TV many years ago, but had no idea it was this film.) Character actress Mary Jo Catlett has a memorable bit as a less-than-stunning barfly seduced by Reynolds, and it was funny to see Brian Dennehy in his relatively younger days (i.e., almost 40). Also, it's worth noting that Reynolds uses the word "nigger"—tellingly, another white character throws the same word around in director Michael Ritchie's previous movie, The Bad News Bears. That kind of talk wouldn't fly with moviegoers today. Flawed but sporadically fun; I doubt I am the first one to suggest a better title for this would be Semi-Entertaining. Rating: 3/5.