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Review: Your kids should pass on 'Air Bud: Golden Receiver'

Web posted on: Wednesday, August 19, 1998 1:15:07 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- You'd think Hollywood would learn by now that you shouldn't make a sequel unless you can enlist the talents of the original film's lead actor. First, "Speed 2" tanks because Jason Patric couldn't fill Keanu Reeves' shoes (a frightening thought indeed), and now we get "Air Bud: Golden Receiver," a mongrelized attempt to fool kids into thinking that they're watching a movie featuring a real movie star.

But this time around we don't get a movie star -- that's just some dumb golden retriever trying to catch a football! Watching an Air Bud installment without the original Buddy is like sitting down for a Saturday afternoon dose of "The Three Stooges," only to get five Shemps and no Curlys.

I don't have to tell you, of course, that the real Buddy -- the Buddy who shot a basketball like Jo Jo White and held the screen like a spayed Spencer Tracy -- passed on several months ago after losing a dog leg to cancer. "Golden Receiver," then, stars a "new" Buddy, if such a thing is possible.

I would've trusted the actual Buddy to install cabinets in my kitchen, but this guy is obviously cruising on looks alone. And what's with this sticking his tongue out all the time?

Though the movie is inept in a number of key ways, what it really lacks is a lead actor who can carry his scenes with an un-doggish panache, rather than relying solely on a concocted ability to run pass routes and catch a football while wearing shoulder pads. I would've trusted the actual Buddy to install cabinets in my kitchen, but this guy is obviously cruising on looks alone. And what's with this sticking his tongue out all the time?

Kevin Zegers costars (just like he did in the first movie) as Josh ... and look how big he's getting! He's now in junior high school, but his mom (portrayed by Cynthia Stevenson, who's a real actress, for God's sake, and shouldn't be doing this) is still unmarried. Right off the bat, you get the expected "Mom goes on a couple of dates" laugh-fest montage. And Josh doesn't like it one bit.

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Her new boyfriend (Gregory Harrison, the poor producer's George Clooney) is a veterinarian who just wuvs dat wittle Buddy, though he doesn't seem to be loving enough for the rather ill-humored Josh. Josh convinces himself that the vet has a stable of girlfriends on the back burner, and is just stringing Mom along for the fun of it. It's perfectly clear from the start that Harrison's on the up-and-up, though, because Buddy really digs him. An acute sense of smell can be used for more than locating misplaced chew toys, I guess.

Segue into football stardom

Okay, fine. Josh, for rather vague reasons, eventually joins the school football team. The team is no good in that inept, slamming-into-each-other and falling-down way that's such a hit with the kiddies. In fact, I'd estimate that 40 percent of the jokes in the movie consist of people who thought they were gonna be able to just stand there and relax suddenly getting knocked over and falling into water, or mud.

This occurs courtesy of Buddy, or by some sequence of events that was set into motion by Buddy's gregarious retriever sensibilities. Buddy just wants to play, and he winds up getting his chance, at a level that (when the movie comes out on video) will have dogs all over the country growling and nipping with jealousy.

In the last film, the real Buddy got to play point guard on a basketball team. This time, though, he's strapping on the leather as a wide receiver for Josh's football squad. As luck would have it, Josh suddenly becomes the nominal leader when the team's hotshot quarterback dislocates his shoulder. (The coach's response to this poor kid's shockingly severe injury amounts to a modified shrug.)

Josh is no great shakes as a QB, until he realizes that "New Buddy" (not to be confused with "Buddy Classic") is the Paul Warfield of four-legged creatures. Or maybe the Jim Thorpe. He seems to excel at pretty much any sport that'll have him.

Evil Russian circus owners turn twisted plot

The Josh-to-Buddy connection, in a highly unexpected turn of events, starts rewriting the record books. Buddy, out of necessity, even invents a touchdown celebration dance that makes him look like he's convulsing in the end zone after a big run. All is well in Buddyville, until, wouldn't you know it, a Boris and Natasha-like team of Russian circus owners (Natasha being played by Nora Dunn, who also should have turned and ran) kidnaps our hero just before the big championship game! This is actually a historic turn of events as far as football movies go. The star player and the team mascot have been kidnapped in one trip. It's all very tense, not to mention economical.

Buddy Classic had a tragically brief career, but he blazed a trail of movie cool the likes of which hasn't been seen since James Dean played that deadly game of chicken in "Rebel Without a Cause." A cock of his head, a shake of his tail, and that masterful jump shot were his calling cards.

I'll always remember him, though, more for his acting instincts than for his sports prowess. Buddy knew that an over-reliance on the whimper-and-pant was for the old school, shmucks like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. He was not ashamed to immerse himself in a character, deftly utilizing the immersion as a means of coming to terms with a small piece of his own (worm-free) heart.

Sink a three for me, Buddy. May you forever have a bone to bury; may a gleaming hydrant always beckon. You will be missed.

"Air Bud: Golden Retriever" features no cursing or bloodshed, if that's what's worrying you. Unlike the dog in "Dr. Dolittle," Buddy does not crack wise during the insertion of a rectal thermometer. Rated G. 91 minutes.

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