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Review:  Hard-hitting ‘Concussion’ may have tried to tackle a bit too much

Will Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu, in a scene from Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

Will Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu, in a scene from Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”

(Columbia Pictures)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Both intentionally and otherwise, “Concussion” is a troubling film.

As the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who was key to discovering a link between playing football, concussions and a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, that can cause dementia and even death, “Concussion” is in part a clarion call to the NFL to clean up its act (something the league has apparently begun to do) after some high-profile fatalities.

More than that, “Concussion” is a warning to parents who might be worried about their gridiron-inclined offspring that, as Omalu puts it, “God did not intend for us to play football.” Adds a colleague, “If 10% of mothers feel football is too dangerous, it’s over.”

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While the debate among experts over “Concussion’s” scientific stance has already begun, that’s inevitable in a film that (unlike Steve James’ potent 2012 documentary on the same subject, “Head Games”) has chosen to present things in narrative form.

From a movie point of view, however, the key problem is that writer-director Peter Landesman has pushed too hard to make this story fit into a dramatic mold, alternating melodrama and romance with those earnest warnings in a way that is more ungainly than effective.

For “Concussion” is not just a warning to parents and athletes, it’s also a star vehicle for Will Smith as the crusading Omalu. It’s a performance, African accent and all, that reminds us, after some less-than-convincing recent roles, how charming and charismatic a performer Smith can be. But the plot elements that have to be included to make the film suitable to an actor of his magnitude fit awkwardly with its other purposes.

Omalu is introduced testifying as an expert witness in a murder case, wearing his numerous degrees and enormous knowledge lightly as he explains his passion for finding out why people die.

Later, watching him do autopsies for the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburg, we can tell that the good doctor is no ordinary physician. For one thing, he likes to throw his instruments away after each autopsy, and for another he asks the spirit of the dead to assist him. “I can’t do this alone,” he whispers to the corpse in question. “I need your help to tell the world what happened to you.”

Those attitudes raise lots of eyebrows in the workplace, but Omalu has the backing of his boss, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht (an effective Albert Brooks). As things develop, he’s going to need it because though he knows almost nothing about American football, Omalu ends up doing the autopsy on Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster.

As we’ve seen at “Concussion’s” opening, Webster (played by David Morse) has been slowly going crazy for years. “You’ve got to fix this,” he screams at former Steelers team physician Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), but death comes before any fix is possible, and the cause of death is in Omalu’s hands.

After ordering numerous tests, including some he paid for himself, Omalu comes to believe that the head banging and concussions that Webster sustained during his career damaged his brain in much the same way that the blows to the head that boxers sustain can make them what used to be called punch-drunk.

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As “Concussion” goes on, other NFL players are shown to be having similar mental breakdowns and deaths, including Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig). Omalu gets access to their brains and says they, too, were suffering from CTE.

Naturally, the NFL is not pleased to hear about this, ignoring Omalu’s findings at first and then demanding a retraction. Even though the doctor has misgivings about what Wecht characterizes as “going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” his passion for the truth makes him persevere.

All this is certainly involving, but it fits awkwardly with a completely different strand of the film that extensively details the growing romance between Omalu and a beautiful young Kenyan woman named Prema Musito (“Belle’s” Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who his church has improbably asked him to take in as a boarder.

Also sounding a jarring note is the film’s willingness to hint, without coming out and saying it, that NFL retaliation reached such ogre-like proportions that it led to federal prosecution against Omalu’s mentor Wecht and even to shadowy people following Musito and causing terrible damage.

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Ordinarily, departures from reality are perfectly acceptable for factually based drama. But it would be nice if a film that wants to influence real-world decisions by having us believe it’s telling the absolute truth about the dangers of concussions held itself to a similar high standard of truth in all areas of plot. But that may be too much to ask.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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‘Concussion’

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MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic material, including some disturbing images and language.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Playing: In general release


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