For its many animated heroes and family-friendly programming, Disney remains the leader in a singular film genre. Inspiration sports films have long been a staple from the House of Mouse. Films like Remember the Titans and Miracle stand out to many who grew up in the early aughts. Yet, that’s never stopped the studio from adding additional stories to their impressive catalog in both narrative and documentary features. These films rarely disappoint, and with high production values, they stand above many pretenders from other studios. Premiering on Disney+, Safety is the latest film to join the family. Despite cliche and a surprising running-time, Safety delivers plenty of heart and uplifting thoughts to earn a watch during the holiday season.
Safety tells the true story of brothers Ray Ray (Jay Reeves) and Fahmarr McElrathbey (Thaddeus J. Mixson). Ray Ray earned a scholarship to play for Clemson University during the 2006 season, despite a tough upbringing with his mother. As she struggled with drug addiction, Ray Ray begins his college career. After her arrest, she finds herself pushed into rehab, leaving Fahmarr without a guardian and facing foster care. Instead, Ray Ray volunteers to serve as guardian, forcing the brothers to hide their secret from Clemson, Ray Ray’s teammates, and his friends.
The story and screenplay of Safety go to many of the places you’d expect, but ingenuity is not the goal. Instead, Safety leans into emotional frustration, the love of family, and sappy speeches. Producers Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi know the exact tone we’re looking for, especially considering their pedigree. With The Rookie and Invincible in their past, they’re first-ballot Hall-of-Famers within the genre. The screenplay, story structure, and tone of a movie Dad will watch with the kids.
Yet Safety does not present itself as disposal. Director Reginald Hudlin has created a steady career making films that feel like the mid-budget fare of the Nineties. As Hudlin departs the inspirational courtrooms and political stories of the past five years, he quickly proves himself overqualified for Safety. Surprisingly, the POV cameras are steady enough to approximate being on the field for a live play. Hudlin adds a chaotic nature to these shots, and it can feel like sensory overload. He’s also got an eye to add some flourishes with the camera, as it turns to warn of new threats entering a room or slowly zoom into close-ups to capture emotion.
The story does fall into a repetitive streak, but Reeves and Mixon keep it afloat. Their chemistry is palpable, and even as they pull the same game of hide-and-seek for the fifth time in a scene. Many of the laughs in the film are due to the bond between the two performers, and they are impossible to root against. Other actors, such as James Badge Dale or Corinne Foxx, are serviceable in their roles. Badge Dale does the most with his non-verbals and limited screentime but sadly feels underutilized. Foxx does not get an opportunity to shine, relegated to the girlfriend of the moody star.
However, the underutilized side characters may stem from the central issue of Safety. Making this inspirational story two-hours long really wears on the audience. There are plenty of redundant moments that water-down or leave us stuck in odd moments. Most sports stories have these, but the sign of a great flick is one that cuts the fat. Instead, seeing the brothers McElrathbey pull another “heist” to get into the dorm can feel exhausting. Rather than building character moments, it feels like Ray earned himself an extra couple of laps. A 90-minute Safety should have been on the table. It also makes issues with the dialogue, lack of chemistry outside Ray’s friend group, and an underdeveloped Head Coach become obvious concerns.
Safety will not find itself in many awards races. It will not reinvent the football film either. Yet its heart and crowd-pleasing nature make this a must for sports movie aficionados. Funny with some genuine performances to anchor the narrative, Safety feels destined to become a family favorite this holiday season. Despite some corny jokes and a fairly obvious plot, you may find yourself blitzed into submission by Safety.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR SAFETY IS A 6 OUT OF 10