Pop Goes The News — Audiences didn’t run to theatres this past weekend to buy tickets for Race, a feature film about American track and field champion Jesse Owens.
The Canadian co-production debuted in sixth place with a little more than $7 million at the box office, according to estimates on Sunday.
Race was beaten by Deadpool, Kung Fu Panda 3, Risen, The Witch and How to be Single.
Filmed in Montreal (with some scenes completed in Berlin) in the summer of 2014, the movie was supposed to star John Boyega as Owens — but the British actor dropped out to play Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Toronto actor Stephan James stepped in to the leading role. A two-season veteran of Degrassi, the 22-year-old appeared in the Oscar-nominated Selma and earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for his role in 2012’s Home Again.
While Race received mostly negative reviews leading up to its opening weekend — with critics describing it as long, “downright dull” (Deadline), “by-the-numbers” (Toronto Sun) and “lethargic” (Time) — James was singled out for his performance.
At Vulture, Bilge Ebiri praised James.
“As Jesse Owens, he mixes confidence, bewilderment, and subdued rage into a powerful whole,” wrote Ebiri. “It’s not a big, show-offy performance. Quite the contrary: He’s surprisingly quiet, watchful. Everything seems to be submerged, but still present.”
Pete Hammond of Deadline opined that James “is a fine actor and believable as this star athlete” although he added “he always seems to be skimming the surface in search of a three-dimensional portrait that never comes.”
In Variety, Andrew Barker noted: “While James … manages to build a fully empathetic character, the connection between the nice young man of James’ performance and the towering achievements of Owens’ athletic career remains a bit out of reach.”
Ella Taylor of NPR gushed that Owens is “ably played by the impossibly beautiful” James.
Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called James “fine” and “fully-committed” while David Blaustein of ABC News described the actor as “wonderful” and said “he does everything right.”
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden described James’ performance as “nuanced” and said he “brings an impressive, unforced physicality to the competition scenes.”
His role in Race allows James to “subtly introduce himself as a capable leading man,” according to Sandy Cohen of The Associated Press.
Also singling out James’ work was Linda Barnard of the Toronto Star, who called him “clearly a talent to watch.”
She wrote that James “follows solid work in Selma by hitting all the right beats as Owens, a humble yet driven man. His dedication to the role reveals itself not only in dramatic skill but in the physical training to learn to not only run like the champion Owens, but the flawed, still-learning runner, too.”
FLASHBACK: 3 made-in-Montreal movies fizzle at box office
David Sims of The Atlantic opined that James is “quietly charming” in the role.
“It’s hard to visually dramatize the skill of running very fast—the simple fact of Owens’s greatest achievements was that they occurred so quickly—so James makes Owens seem poised to bolt at any minute,” wrote Sims.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden seemed to agree.
“Mr. James adroitly conveys [Owens’] hurt and half-buried anger in subversive flashes,” he wrote.
James was also described as “plenty likeable” by Jesse Hassenger of The A.V. Club, “appealing” by Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, and “steady and strong” by Richard Crouse of Canada AM.
CBC News movie critic Eli Glasner said James “radiates confidence” and delivers a strong performance.
MORE: MTL Blog bungles list of ‘Hollywood Movies Filmed in Montreal’
Also praising the Canadian star was Perri Nemiroff at Collider.
“James made a strong impression with little screen time in Selma, so it’s no surprise that he delivers a commanding performance here,” Nemiroff wrote.
“The character certainly could have benefited from a tighter script and better scene transitions, but James tackles every ounce of it with such conviction that he gets you engaged in every sequence that he’s in.”