Tough guy types like Tom Hardy and Mark Wahlberg spring to mind when thinking up actors who could convincingly play a US Marine, but in new Nicholas Sparks drama The Lucky One credibility is stretched from the off with former High School Musical star Zac Efron leading the cast as a traumatised veteran of three Iraq tours.
Efron’s Logan sees friends fall as he dodges death on two occasions while on duty. He puts this good fortune down to a photograph of a young woman he unearths in the sand. When he returns to the US, he sets out to find his mysterious guardian angel and pass on his thanks.
When he does meet Beth (Taylor Schilling), a single mother who works at a dog kennel, a mix-up leads to him landing a handyman job and the pair’s initially awkward relationship blossoms into something more. Matters are complicated by the intimidating presence of Beth’s ex Keith and his reluctance to come clean about the picture, which belonged to belonged to her Marine brother who died on duty.
Sparks is now established as a Hollywood brand, so director Scott Hicks finds himself restricted by the formula. Logan and Beth resist each other at first, then fall deeply in love before being forced apart.
There’s also room for a cardboard cut-out villain (Mad Men‘s Jay R Ferguson), a cute kid (Riley Thomas Stewart) and a lovable senior citizen with health issues (this role is filled by Blythe Danner).
Fans of Efron will no doubt swoon at his brooding, buffed-up protagonist, but even with a shower sex scene there’s still a noticeable lack of fizz between him and newcomer Schilling.
The success of Sparks’s The Notebook was in part down to the chemistry between stars Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Despite all its well-worn clichés, the sweeping romance worked because you were invested in Noah and Allie. The Lucky One‘s central pair don’t quite have the same appeal.
Efron is continuing his tricky transition from teen star to serious actor, ditching the physically exuberant song-and-dance roles in favour of more sombre, contained characters. Playing a war veteran in The Lucky One may seem like a move out of his comfort zone, but in a precision-engineered tear duct botherer such as this he’s still very much coasting on his heartthrob image. Efron may need to play a character who’s ugly on the inside before he can truly be free of Troy Bolton.