Concussion: Blessed with a knockout lead performance from Will Smith

You don't need a medical degree or any of the titles held by Will Smith's crusading medic in Concussion to conclude that a contact sport, which delivers repeated blows to the head, might pose a health risk to competitors.

Monday, 15th February 2016, 8:00 pm
Will Smith
Will Smith

In boxing, when a fighter is blindsided by a punch, they are assessed by the referee, given a standing count and asked if they wish to continue.

In American football, when a player is dazed by a collision with the equivalent g-force of a sledgehammer to the cranium, they shake it off and return to the field of play.

This blitzkrieg of bone-crunching tackles continues for up to an hour every Sunday for 17 weeks, with the promise of more pain if a team qualifies for the Super Bowl play-offs.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

Professionals with careers that stretch into double digits can look forward to more than 45,000 blows to the head.

Writer-director Peter Landesman’s film pays glorious tribute to Dr Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian forensic pathologist, who challenged studies by the National Football League (NFL), which concluded that there was no evidence of striking players experiencing neck injury or concussion.

It’s a rousing tale of a mild-mannered underdog versus a hulking corporate giant that paints the central character as a saint who never strays from the path of righteous indignation, even when he loses everything.

If it weren’t based on a true story, Landesman’s script would be impossible to swallow.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

The film opens in September 2002 in Pittsburgh, where Omalu (Smith) works diligently at the Allegheny Count Coroner’s Office under his snarky mentor, Dr Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).

The death of NFL legend Mike Webster (David Morse) draws a media circus and Omalu coolly performs the autopsy.

Cross-sections of the player’s brain reveal that he was suffering from a progressive degenerative brain condition, which Omalu christens chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

His findings challenge the NFL hierarchy spearheaded by boo-hiss executive Christopher Jones (Hill Harper).

The NFL vociferously denounces Omalu’s research, even when Dr Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), former team physician of the Pittsburgh Steelers, breaks rank to pledge unstinting support.

“Bennet Omalu is going to war with the manufacturer of a product that 20 million Americans crave every Sunday the way they crave water,” dryly summarises Wecht.

Concussion is blessed with a knockout lead performance from Smith, who nails his character’s accent and steely resolve.

Unfortunately, his trailblazer is too perfect to be believable or engaging, and a tentative romance between Omalu and his houseguest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) feels contrived, providing Smith’s luminous co-star with various rallying cries for justice.

“If you don’t speak for the dead, who will?” she coos.

Heroes and villains are sketched in black and white, and dramatic momentum builds to a centrepiece speech that proves one impossibly good man can take on the bullies... and win.