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‘Game of the Lives’ never gets to midfield

Story of 1950s U.S. soccer team's trip to the World Cup. By David Germain
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s a shame to say it when the filmmakers invested such clear and loving earnestness in the “The Game of Their Lives.” But this soccer tale is about as exciting to watch as a scoreless match between opponents so defense-minded the ball never gets beyond midfield.

The movie spends most of its time telling viewers the bush-league U.S. team’s trip to the World Cup in 1950 — which included a major upset of the powerhouse squad from England — is an inspirational story of backbone and perseverance by a band of outmatched nobodies.

Yet it never comes across emotionally the way it did with director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo’s previous sports-underdog dramas, “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.”

The soccer action may lend itself to great suspense in an actual game, but it’s humdrum stuff in a movie dependent on a nailbiter of a climax. Even with the game necessarily truncated to fit within the film’s third act, the action drags and never delivers on the sense of startling urgency conveyed in a frantic broadcaster’s play-by-play announcements.

Likewise, Patrick Stewart’s stiff and corny voice-overs as a present-day sportswriter looking back on the game weigh ponderously on the story.

The requisite camaraderie among players is there to a degree, though the focus is diffused among such a large roster that it takes a while to tell who’s who without a literal scorecard.

At the heart of the story is goalie Frank Borghi, endearingly played by Gerard Butler in the film’s finest performance.

Borghi was among a group of early soccer devotees in an Italian-American neighborhood in St. Louis who were hitched to an East Coast squad to form the makeshift U.S. team that went to the World Cup in Brazil with barely any practice time and a snowball’s chance in the equatorial heat.

Among Borghi’s teammates were Philadelphia hotshot Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley); Joe Gatjeans (Jimmy Jean-Louis), a Haitian-born New Yorker; and St. Louis pals Charley Colombo (Costas Mandylor), Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor), Pee Wee Wallace (Jay Rodan) and Harry Keough (Zachery Bryan).

John Rhys-Davis has a sizable though undistinguished role as team manager, while Terry Kinney plays the Stewart character as a young man, a local sportswriter who covered the World Cup.

Gavin Rossdale of the British band Bush co-stars as English soccer legend Stanley Mortensen, whose cocky dismissal of his Yankee opponents opened the door for the U.S. team’s victory.

The film ambles amiably enough through the team’s growing pains as the disciplined East Coasters clash with the loose, improvisational boys from St. Louis, the two cliques gradually finding common ground.

“Greatest Game” never captures the impossible-odds spirit that made crowd-pleasers of such recent hits as “Miracle” and “The Rookie.” The ingredients are largely the same, but the calculated cliches of the sports genre play out flimsily, the sentiment spoken but not really felt.

The movie’s relatively small budget also undermines the showdown with England, forcing the filmmakers to shoot the game tightly focused on the field to conceal the fact that a small crowd of extras were standing in for stands supposedly filled with 38,000 spectators.