(2006) True Sports Drama (Disney) Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rispoli, Kevin Conway, Michael Nouri, Paige Turco, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Nicoye Banks, Stink Fisher, Lola Glaudini. Directed by Ericson Core
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones once said “Never tell me the odds.” Vince Papale not only heard him say it, he lived his life by it.
Papale (Wahlberg) was like many people in South Philadelphia in 1976, fighting for survival. He was holding down two jobs, as a substitute teacher and as a part-time bartender. When the school district cut back on teaching positions, Papale found himself in a bind. His wife Sharon (Glaudini) could handle no more and she left him, writing a vitriolic note that left no uncertainty about how she felt – the man she married was a loser who would never amount to much.
The Philadelphia Eagles NFL team was in similar straits. They’d suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, and not just losing seasons, humiliating seasons. The fandom in Philly, never known for being particularly tolerant of losing teams, was angry. Already in a bad mood because of the economy, strikes and unemployment, the lift they were looking for from their football team just wasn’t there. Owner Leonard Tose (Nouri), looking for a way out of the downward spiral, knew the team needed a change in the head coach position. Rather than hiring a well-known name, he selected a college coach with no previous professional experience – Dick Vermeil (Kinnear) from UCLA.
Vermeil was coming off an inspiring Rose Bowl win over Ohio State. He knew that he would be in the crosshairs to win immediately, but also realized that he didn’t have much in the way of personnel. In order to build more interest in his team, he announced that he was going to hold open tryouts. Keep in mind that open tryouts are virtually unheard of for an NFL team, who normally add players through trades with other teams or through the college draft.
Papale’s friends, like Pete (Kelly), who had never been the same after his brother was killed in Vietnam, and Tommy (Acevedo) who was on strike at Westinghouse, and his employer at the bar Max (Rispoli) all urged Papale to attend the tryout. Not only was Papale a superfan, he was also dominant in the pickup football games played in a loose league that pitted the employees and customers of various South Philly bars against one another. When Max’s comely cousin Janet (Banks), a hardcore Giants fan, chimes in, he finally gives in despite the misgivings of his father (Conway).
The local media treats the tryouts as a joke and for the most part they are, but Papale, who is big and speedy and also has heart and determination catches Vermeil’s eye. Of all the tryouts, Vince is the only one to be invited to training camp. The guys at the bar are ecstatic and all of South Philly picks up on it. Vince is their hero, living a fans dream.
The other players in the Eagle locker room are not so sanguine. They look at Papale as an upstart, an invader and an affront. They all expect him to be cashiered after a few days as does Vince himself. To everyone’s surprise, he hangs in there. Papale doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit and he gives everything he can, figuring he might as well leave it all on the field. After all, he is 30 years old. When is he going to have another chance to try out for an NFL team?
For Vermeil, the pressure becomes exponentially more intense. As the Eagles lose game after game in the preseason, the press is howling for blood, the fans are right there with them and only his wife (Turco) seems to be in his corner. Still, Vermeil knows what it takes to win whether in college, high school, NFL, pee wees what have you. And although it is getting harder to keep Papale, who is taking quite a beating from the resentful veterans, he just can’t deny the attitude which is precisely what he wants to instill in his team.
At last, he relents and gives Papale the last spot on the team to play on the special team squad. Although the media spotlight on Papale brings the kind of attention to the team that sells tickets (which makes Tose happy), if Papale doesn’t perform in the games, it is going to be very bad for Vermeil. Their fates are now inextricably linked.
Of course, this is a Disney sports film so you know immediately how the movie is going to end. It is totally formula, but it is a successful formula. Wahlberg is convincing as a big hearted fan full of self-doubt. Director Core has captured the atmosphere of South Philly perfectly. Da Queen’s family is from Philly (although not the south side) and she vouches for the authenticity. It has the feel of a working class neighborhood, where everybody knows each other and they’re all in the same boat together.
The football scenes didn’t ring as true to me, with players leaping like gazelles (although the pop of the hits was captured nicely on the soundtrack) and shimmying and shaking. Frankly, Friday Night Lights caught more of the feeling of being on the field than Invincible did. Still, that can be overlooked, particularly when you throw in the awkward romance that is generated between Janet and Vince, two wounded souls that are gun-shy but drawn to each other like a moth to a flame.
Disney has created itself a new niche in the sports underdog movie, with things like The Rookie and Remember the Titans among others. Invincible doesn’t disgrace itself and in fact hits a lot of notes really nicely, much the same way Miracle did. If you’re looking for a reason to feel good, here’s a movie that will generate the warm fuzzies in just about anyone.
WHY RENT THIS: Successful sports underdog movie hits all the right notes. Wahlberg captures the never-say-die attitude of Papale perfectly. The romance between Wahlberg and Banks works.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ll feel like you’ve seen this movie before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some football violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both of Papale’s real life children make cameos in the film, during a pick-up football game his daughter Gabriella play the quarterback who throws the ball to her brother Vincent, wearing the makeshift #83 jersey.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a terrific feature on the real Vince Papale, “Becoming Invincible” which nicely imitates the NFL Films documentary style. On the Blu-Ray edition, “Becoming the Vet” shows how the filming took place at Franklin Field, the Eagles’ home field from 1958-1970; the filmmakers used computer graphics to give the stadium the look of Veteran’s Stadium, where the Eagles played at the time the movie was set but was imploded in 2004, shortly before filming began.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even and possibly made a little money.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Fog (2005)