James Caan gets over-the-title billing but actually has only a small role in "The Program," playing the football coach at an Ivy League college, the fictional Eastern State University.
Caan's character is the glue that binds his players together, however and similarly, Caan himself lends a credible thread to the movie.
"The Program" begins with the coach, a 12-year ESU veteran, in a slump. Under the credits his team wraps up its second straight year in a losing streak and neither his superiors nor the alumni are happy about it. After all, he has a strong Heisman Trophy candidate as his quarterback (Craig Sheffer, most recently seen in "The River Runs Through It"). They need to win. And the pressure is on.
So, Caan begins the annual ritual of recruiting high school prospects, looking for the right players to strengthen his team, wooing them with over-the-top promises and the unspoken promise of easy academics it's made very clear that if you are in "The Program," you'll graduate no matter how poor a student you might be.
Caan's main recruit is a young streetwise tailback (Omar Epps, of "Juice"), who is shown around the campus by Halle Berry ("Boomerang"). Epps is so taken with her that she becomes one of the primary reasons he signs with ESU. But after school starts he discovers she has a boyfriend, and he just happens to be the starting tailback. Later, when he finds he needs a tutor, Epps spots Berry's name on the list, and a rocky romance ensues.
The other main character in this ensemble is Sheffer, whose background is also rather rough-hewn. His widowed father, a self-destructive alcoholic, has never seen him play, and Sheffer seems to be headed down the same path. Most of his negative characteristics are exhibited through reckless thrill-seeking dangerous motorcycle jumps, lying on a busy street in the middle of night traffic, standing on a railroad track and playing chicken with a speeding train, etc.
Eventually, Sheffer pursues a strong-willed tennis player (a brunette Kristy Swanson, who was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), who is reluctantly drawn to him.
Then there's the player on steroids, another who gets the coach's daughter to help him cheat on a test, cash in envelopes waved under the players' noses. . . . In other words, "The Program" is largely a compendium of football grievances mixed with soap opera high jinks.
The most affecting element in all of this is Caan being forced to compromise himself on every level to please his superiors, to get his team back on track and to keep his job. He is perfect for the role, but there's no question that the film would be more successful if his were a better-developed central character instead of merely a transition device.
The film has its entertaining elements, though it often comes off like a strident indictment of college football in general. And the characters are too stereotypical and superficial to carry it off.
Further, the uneasy blend of histrionics, romance, sentiment and occasional broad humor does not always succeed. Co-writer/director David S. Ward fared better with the more directly comic "Major League."
Still, the expected down-to-the-wire football climax is undeniably exciting (even if the outcome is precisely what you will predict) and the performances of Epps and Sheffer, and especially Caan and Berry, are quite good.
If you're a sports movie fan, that may be enough.
"The Program" is rated R for violence (including an attempted rape), a steady stream of profanity, some vulgarity, sexual innuendo, brief male nudity and drug abuse.