2006Director: Ericson Core
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks
iven the onslaught of sports-themed underdog movies in recent years (Rebound, The Benchwarmers, the Bad News Bears remake, to only name some of the bad ones), we have all developed our own individual pet peeves with regard to this genre, in all its bloated sanguinity. Be it the incredibly clueless and invariably cheesy sports commentary, the incessant freeze frames and slow-motion shots, or the false dramatics that serve but to push the runtime into the outposts of legitimacy, there’s a lot to hate about these overabundant, trite tales of trumping the odds—despite their good-hearted underpinnings. But for every sour, sorry portrayal like Mr. 3000, there’s a Cinderella Man or Glory Road to remind us that the courage of those true underdogs, those who really did overcome all odds to achieve greatness, can never be diminished by the countless, frivolous copycat portrayals.
But be that as it may, we should approach a film like Invincible very cautiously. The true story of Philadelphia Eagles walk-on Vince Papale is, without a doubt, of the moral complexity and soundness of Rocky or Rudy, the genre’s defining gold standards. However, the timing of the movie’s release (less than two weeks short of the start of the NFL season) and the studio that puppets its inflated, winding narrative both call attention to the sincerity of the film. Thankfully, the new film is not simply a mass-produced cash cow for Disney and the NFL; it takes the time to tell its characters’ story, and, in terms of genuine feel for the time period and location, it rivals The Greatest Game Ever Played as Disney’s finest recent effort.
Mark Wahlberg plays Papale, a substitute teacher and part-time bartender from south Philadelphia, who tries out for the Eagles in 1976 and makes the team, thanks to the compassion of rookie head coach Dick Vermeil. (That’s the film’s version of the story; real life was a tad different, but close enough.) An intense, burning passion for the Eagles and his suffering city of Philadelphia—where strikes, layoffs, and unemployment spared precious little time for recreation—propels Papale to fight through the exhaustion any 30-year-old would feel in an NFL training camp (this despite the fact that Papale never played college football). His ultimate story of a common man with heart triumphing over overpaid, underachieving professionals is a straight-forward, even mundane, underdog tale, but it floats because it keeps the tired, corny clichés to a minimum and effectively harnesses its environment.
Both Wahlberg’s Papale and Greg Kinnear’s Vermeil are well-cast, sincere and admirable. Though he couldn’t hope to muster the tough-guy, meathead formidability of the real Papale, Wahlberg brings an urban swagger to the role, convincing due to his excellent feel for the character’s emotions and motivations, even if he lacks his physical size. The result is a calculated everyman, an archetype surely, but one with life to it. Knnear is every bit as good. Look up photographs of a young Dick Vermeil, check footage to see how the man talked and what he said, and you’ll realize that Kinnear doesn’t simply play Vermeil. From the frail twitch of his mouth to the persistent hint of a tear, Kinnear has become Vermeil. Certainly, this actor did his homework, even going so far as to tail the old coach in his final season with the Kansas City Chiefs last year. The result is a stunning incarnation of one of the most exemplary coaches of his era, replenishing authenticity even as the vapid dialogue threatens to deplete it.
The plot, built largely around the hardships and insecurities of Papale and his unemployed friends, sputters periodically, but the endearing depiction of the first inklings of urban decay in one of America’s greatest cities never fails to engage. Unlike the simplistic—and admittedly differently aimed—The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon (also loosely based on Papale’s story), which attempted to channel the plight of the city’s working class through the success of its beloved team (who can forget Tony Danza’s “this is for the cab drivers” speech?), Invincible digs deeper and thus accomplishes more. For this film, it isn’t simply a case of “let’s win one for the struggling city”; it realizes that the struggles are personal and its characters’ individual tribulations receive as much attention as those of the city as a whole.
After all, an underdog tale is, by its very definition, the story of an anomaly—the one who beat the odds while hundreds like him failed. Such is the story of Vince Papale: the one who made it. Its depiction of the masses, for whom there were no storied triumphs, is what truly makes the formulaic Invincible worthwhile.
Invincible is playing in theatres across the country
By: Imran J. Syed
Published on: 2006-08-30