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Shia LaBeouf as an amateur golfer in "The Greatest Game Ever Played."
THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED — ** 1/2 — Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Elias Koteas; rated PG (mild profanity, violence).

The gimmicky filmmaking in "The Greatest Game Ever Played" almost proves to be its undoing.

This underdog sports drama is set in the early 20th century, but it features a few curious, modern-day flourishes. Among them are digitally created horizon "sweeps" and odd, dreamlike virtual-reality sequences that look as if they were pulled from a video game, or one of the "Matrix" movies.

Obviously, such things really don't belong in a period piece. That the film works as well as it does — or at all — is largely due to the old-fashioned appeal of the story and its likable cast.

"Greatest Game" is based on Mark Frost's book of the same name, which examined the 1913 U.S. Open, one of the most heated competitions in professional golf history. (Frost also wrote this screenplay.)

The tournament features one very unlikely competitor, Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf, from "Constantine"), a 20-year-old amateur player who is quite familiar with the course, having worked there for years as a caddy.

His inclusion rankles some of the blue-bloods, who insist that the competitors be professionals, or club members. But exceptions are made to allow amateur players. The competition also boasts an impressive list of professionals, including Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), the British champion who inspired Francis to take up the sport in the first place.

"Greatest Game" also examines Francis' disagreements about the sport and his career with his father (Elias Koteas), as well as his tentative romance with the daughter (Peyton List) of one of the club members.

The film's attention to period details, such as costuming and hairstyles, is impressive. But director Bill Paxton's modern flourishes prove to be a distraction.

Fortunately, he's got a terrific lead in LaBeouf, who resembles a young John Cusack and even has a similar everyman quality. And Dillane is solid as Vardon, who faced a few challenges of his own due to the English class system.

In support, Josh Flitter becomes a little irritating as the wisecracking young caddy who helps Francis during the competition.

"The Greatest Game Ever Played" is rated PG for scattered use of mild profanity (religiously based) and some brief violence (fisticuffs). Running time: 115 minutes.


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