50to1coverGrade: B
Entire family: No, but ….
2014, 111 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and a bar brawl
Sony Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: C
Trailer/Amazon link

50 to 1 just about describes the odds of a low-budget, small-studio movie with mostly B-list talent and a writer-director of former box-office disappointments being able to compete with slicker big-studio horse racing titles.

But I’ll tell you right now, like Mine That Bird, the subject of this 2014 sport drama with comedic moments, 50 to 1 beats the odds. I liked it as much as Seabiscuit (2003) and Secretariat (2010).

Notice I said “liked it as much” rather than “as good as.” The budgets for Seabiscuit and Secretariat were respectively 8.7 and 3.5 times larger and the production values sometimes show it. The script for 50 to 1 also is more uneven, with character development that falls a little short. William Devane is the most recognizable name actor onboard, and while the acting won’t win any awards, the cast does a good job of making you believe their characters.

50to1screen1Everybody loves an underdog story, and 50 to 1 is a doozy. The horse, a smaller-than-usual gelding with a strange walk, has been running as slow as can be and gets no respect. Neither does the rag-tag group of New Mexico cowboys and their families who own him, train him, ride him, invest in him, and, most importantly, believe in him. They’re not wealthy dabblers who race horses as a hobby. They need one good horse to help them keep their stables in business, and with creditors knocking at the door they’re as much of an underdog as Mine That Bird. Even if you’re an urbanite, it’s tough not to appreciate this rough-around-the-edges group and the joy they take in the small things in life. They’re not phony posers, they’re real people, so when the snobs in racing circles treat them as if they were the Clampetts from The Beverly Hillbillies, it’s hard not to secretly (or not so secretly) pull for them to show those bluebloods a thing or two.  

When the starting gates open, 50 to 1 runs a bit like Mine That Bird, getting off to a slow start and then pulling off a third-act burst of energy that leaves you emotionally wrung out at the end. It offers a pretty big pay-off for a little film that really features a plot that isn’t as dramatic as we’re used to seeing from Hollywood. Maybe that’s because it stays pretty close to the real story that inspired it—so much so that if you find yourself doing a double take when the end credits roll and the real footage shows the same jockey as the actor who played him, it’s because jockey Calvin Borel played himself. There’s an authentic feel to the film, and touches like that make a difference.

50to1screen2But 50 to 1 does play up the cowboy angle. In fact, the most PG-13 moment in the whole movie is the opening scene, which celebrates a barroom brawl the way that old John Wayne movies once did. It subtly celebrates macho culture, too, with a couple of cowboys bonding early in the film and then reuniting years later. But theirs was a tale of two fortunes. One (Christian Kane) went to Alaska and made a pile of money working the oil rigs, then invested in a horse racing operation that could afford its own airplane and a $500,000 payout for a promising horse. The other (Skeet Ulrich) is a surlier sort who came to his old friend for a trainer’s job in order to help raise money to stave off bankruptcy on the stable that he and his brother owned and operated. Throw in a kindly old investor (Devane), a female wannabe jockey (Madelyn Deutch), who, like everyone else, gets no respect, and you have a film that seems familiar as can be. But at some point you get hooked, and that makes it all worthwhile.

50 to 1 is rated PG-13, but I’ve seen PG movies that have had as much fighting and adult situations (drinking, suggestive remarks). Such things will probably fly right over the heads of young viewers, and they’re balanced by an element of Christian faith.

Language: The usual “damns” and “hells,” mostly; nothing that stands out
Sex: None
Violence: One bar brawl and another near-brawl
Adult situations: Suggestive remarks and situations (a man tries to get “fresh”), but no romance or one-night stands
Takeaway: Sometimes a movie can surprise you . . . same as this horse