“Invincible” is the story of an average guy who gets the chance of a lifetime to try out for the Philadelphia Eagles and actually makes the team. “Gridiron Gang” is about a bunch of teens at a juvenile detention center who come together and gain self-esteem by playing football. “Beerfest” is a sports satire about a group of American friends who discover an underground beer drinking competition while in Germany.
Does anybody else have a sense of déjà vu? If “Invincible” sounds like the football version of “Rocky,” “Gridiron Gang” sounds like the teen version of “The Longest Yard,” and “Beerfest” sounds like a hysterical version of Jean Claude Van Damme’s underground fighting movie “Bloodsport,” don’t panic. We see these same stories over and over again not because Hollywood is completely devoid of original ideas, but because audiences respond to compelling tales of sporting achievement. There’s nothing like rooting for the underdog. There’s nothing like watching somebody beat impossible odds and win. These movies keep us coming back to the theater.
Generally, there are really only three basic sports films. There’s the story of the team of misfits who learn how to come together as a team. There’s the story of the athlete who overcomes long odds to achieve something thought to be completely out of reach. Occasionally, there’s the story of the great athlete cut down in his prime by disease or accident or circumstance who teaches everyone what it means to be human.
If you remain unconvinced, consider this sports film, which you will never see — it’s the story of a man born with a keen mind for the game, the perfect physique, who grew up in a setting where he had everything he ever wanted or needed. Eventually, he achieves everything ever predicted of him in the sport of his choice. Not coming to a Cineplex near you: “The John Elway Story” or “The Barry Sanders Story.” This is not to suggest either of these guys necessarily had every advantage, but living up to expectations does not a good sports movie make. Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, but it was his tragic battle with the disease named for him that made “Pride of the Yankees” a compelling story.
Best don’t follow the formula
Ironically, some of the sports movies considered the finest of all time tweak the standard formula. The most common type of sports film is the one in which an individual or team beats long odds to win. However, the finest examples of the genre often remind us that it’s not winning or losing, but how the game is played and how the struggle is accomplished that means the most. Remember, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) didn’t beat Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in that first film. It’s only in the subsequent films where it appears necessary for Rocky to win that last fight.
In “Raging Bull”, often regarded as director Martin Scorsese’s best, it’s not about winning, but how the struggle shapes the man, Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), and vice versa. At the end of “Bull Durham,” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is sent down to the minor leagues. He’s washed up. In “The Bad News Bears,” the team can’t quite pull out a win in the championship game. In “Hoop Dreams,” neither William Gates nor Arthur Agee make the NBA. All these films are about the struggle, not about putting one in the win column.
Video: 'Invincible' Perhaps more than any other film, “Rocky” (1976) set the standard for today’s sports movies. It was, after all, the first sports movie to win the Oscar for best picture. It was also successful at the box-office, finishing No. 1 the year of its release. When a movie discovers that magical combination, other movies try to copy it and “Rocky” provides the template for the movie in which the individual overcomes long odds.
“The Longest Yard” (1974) provided an excellent modern template for the team overcoming long odds as Burt Reynolds led a group of prisoners in a football game against the guards. Given that both “The Longest Yard” and “The Bad News Bears” (1976) finished in the top 10 in their respective years of release, the concept was clearly appealing.
Regular Joes win
The characteristic possessed by the hero (or heroes) in many sports film is that he’s a working class person who’s likely from the wrong side of the tracks. If it’s a sports film involving a team, the group is usually always made up of misfits or outcasts. Both “Invincible” and “Gridiron Gang” repeat this successful formula. Vincent Papale (Mark Wahlberg) is the epitome of the working class hero when he attends an open tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles. The kids who form the team in “Gridiron Gang” are all incarcerated juveniles.
In “Rudy” (1993), about the dream of the diminutive Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin) to play college football for Notre Dame, the working class theme is so strong that the film actually features an opening scene where the characters scurry across a set of train tracks.
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Long shots of the industrial character of the towns in which sports movies are set are plentiful. The recent “Cinderella Man” (2005) thrives on the entire concept, following Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) during the depression years when he struggled to find work and feed his family. The list of sports films that exploit its character’s working class roots is staggering and includes “Breaking Away” (1979), “Hoosiers” (1986), “Rollerball” (1975) and “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (2005) among many others. By and large, no matter what their incomes, Americans find working class heroes appealing and it’s why this stereotype works.
Often the downside to the sports film can be the number of clichés that it employs. After awhile, they become as much a source of humor as a source of frustration. It’s common knowledge in the horror genre that if there’s a group of kids being stalked by a serial killer, they inevitably split up and make it easier for the murderer to pick them off.
Sports films are full of their own repetitions and they’re practically a cinematic language. The irony of those clichés however, is that they’re satisfying. Numerous films, including “The Rookie,” “Invincible” and “Gridiron Gang” feature sons and fathers reconciling in some fashion and usually there’s not a dry eye in the house even though most of us have watched that scene over and over again and know it’s coming. In the horror film, we want the teenagers to split up. In the sports movie, we want reconciliation. We want the hugging. We want the grand speeches. We want that tingling feeling up our spine when the hero finally makes the great play.
‘Put me in coach’
With that in mind, here are some of the great sports film clichés. They sometimes make bad movies bad, but they’re often the key element in making good movies good.
The coach — There are two types of coaches: the first is the down-and-out coach for whom coaching provides one last chance at redemption. The second is the coach who never sees eye-to-eye with the film’s hero. Grudging respect is often earned in the end.
The doubter — be it a coach or a friend or a parent, there’s almost always somebody in a sports film whose role it is to tell the hero that he can’t do whatever it is he’s trying to do. Again, in the end, it’s one of those satisfying moments when the doubts finally subside and the doubter acknowledges the hero’s accomplishment.
The lie — when films are based on true stories, the actual facts of the story are almost always exaggerated to make the film even more dramatic. This is frequently one of the more disappointing aspects of sports movies as recent films like “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” “Glory Road” and “Invincible” change or leave out key facts.
The coming together — particularly in team films, issues like gang violence and race relations are overcome and solved between players on the team, usually in a rather frustratingly simplistic way. They start the film on opposite sides of the issue and are unified by competing together.
The sound and soundtrack — music is key to any sports film. Most sports soundtracks are filled with loud, inspiring music — sometimes too much and to the detriment of the film. Used well, though, the music is that extra element that raises our emotional engagement. Similarly, the sound of the sport is usually amplified and accentuated — the smash of a football tackle, the crack of the ball hitting the bat, or the oomph of punch landing on a boxer’s chin.
The slow motion shot — Directors of sports films love the slow motion shot. Even though the real events never happen in slow motion, it’s frequently how the fan remembers the moment and the slow motion shot, used at the right time, can be a great technique to allow the audience to really live in the moment.
The opposing team
The opposing team— the opposing team in most sports films is always larger, better dressed, better equipped and completely full of themselves. Their comeuppance is usually a key element for a satisfying experience.
The death or injury — at some point in a sports movie, one of the supporting characters is either injured or dies to provide the hero with extra motivation for winning.
The age factor — the protagonist is frequently over-the-hill or just about too old, adding to the surprise when he achieves his goals.
The spot — the tendency in a sports movie for the hero to look out into a crowd of tens of thousands and find whatever person is sitting up there in the stands.
The emotional speech — at some point, some character gives a speech that inspires everybody to do better.
It may be fair to say that what makes a sports movie great or bad depends on its ability to traverse the minefield of sports film clichés in a way that either acknowledges and avoids or appreciates and wallows. “Rudy” and “The Rookie” are beloved because they celebrate the underdog story in every way they can, even if they do trot out most of the typical stuff and follow the normal script. Other films, regurgitate those clichés uncontrollably. Sequels are most often guilty of this, as “Rocky II” and beyond show us. Remakes can also be somewhat perilous as “Rollerball” (2001) and “The Longest Yard” (2005) have shown. However, those same clichés, used in excess, can make for great comedy, like “Caddyshack” (1980), and recent films like “Dodgeball” (2004) and “Beerfest.”
A cliché can often be proof of a tiresome concept, but in the case of the sports film, it’s evidence of an enduring interest and appreciation for the genre.
Jason Katzman is co-creator and writer for Shadowculture's Mr. Cranky.
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