The standard sports movie cliché usually involves an underdog team faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their way. They look deep within themselves and, against the odds, pull out an unlikely victory. “Invincible,” the newest Disney sports film, more or less follows that formula with one exception.
Vince Papale’s teammates don’t even want him on the team.
One scene sums up the unpretentious nature of this heartfelt movie. As the assistant coach makes his rounds to the doors of players who will be cut, Vince sits on the edge of his bed, bags packed and ready to go back to tending bar part-time at home. Instead of concentrating on the “big game,” Vince is more concerned with winning over teammates who are at once threatened and insulted by an amateur’s presence in the locker room.
|Dirk Diggler’s hair is invincible|
From the studio on a roll with a seemingly never-ending string of inspiring sports movies like “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “Glory Road,” and “Remember the Titans,” comes a story about a real-life working class folk hero. As another losing season for the Philadelphia Eagles comes to a close, Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) and his friends sit dejected in the stands, but vow loyalty to their hometown team. It is 1975, and many South Philly workers are either jobless or striking. The first of the movie’s two parallels sticks out in the opening scenes of “Invincible,” as the town’s economic recession seems to mirror the Eagles’ losing streak.
Later in the film, Vince’s father will tell him that one big Eagles championship moment thirty years ago is frozen in time for him, and that it alone helped him get through the toughest of years, including the long illness and eventual death of Vince’s mother. Football is the one thing Vince and his buddies can rely on, as they get together for regular sandlot scrimmages, and discuss the team’s future over drinks at Max’s Bar.
The town is wary of new coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), hot off his Rose-Bowl winning season with UCLA, and when he pulls the desperate move of holding open tryouts, he’s really got something to prove. This unusual move, something that would never be considered these days, will also garner more press and hopefully win back the fans by offering them the ultimate prize—wearing an Eagles jersey.
The movie’s backbone is formed by its second and most sturdy parallel, following the journeys of both men on either side of the ball team. When Vince tries out for the Eagles, he knows he has no chance, and the professional players vying for the same spots on the roster make it clear that they would love to see him limp home in defeat. Meanwhile, Vermeil struggles to gain the respect of the city and the team.
During a grueling training season, there is a silent camaraderie, as the two speak almost nary a word to each other. This could have been handled in a heavy-handed way, with the men having long conversations about spirit and heart, but by keeping each character focused on their goal, the film retains a more realistic flavor. Vince’s friends support him and tell him to keep his chin up– but nobody, not even his father, thinks he has a chance to make the team. When every one of Vermeil’s assistants vote against Vince joining the Eagles, the coach overrides them. From then on out, head coach and player’s fates are sealed as one.
|Kinnear is fetching in green pant|
The script, by Brad Gann, avoids broad exaggeration and has a surprising dash of authenticity. The training camp scenes are brutal, as we experience with Vince what its like to be the target of scorn for a 300-pound professional linebacker who’s worried about losing his spot on the team. On the field, first-time director Ericson Core gets all the details right. Icons like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and coach Tom Landry turn up, but only as figures. We never see their faces, just the back of a jersey and The Hat. As if that were not enough perspective, there is the huge expanse of a booing Texas Stadium from the point of view of a 30-year old rookie who never played college football.
An extraneous love story is forced into the film that benefits only from the irony that the girl (Elizabeth Banks) trying to win his heart is a Giants fan. Banks and Wahlberg downplay the love affair, and it is relegated to a few short scenes, so it is a wonder that it exists at all, except to fill the seemingly required plot point for a film of this ilk. Another likely reason is to introduce the woman that real-life Vince is still married to, but if accuracy to Papale’s story was the reason, why did Gann leave out the fact that the real-life Vince played two seasons with former World League team the Philadelphia Bell before playing for the Eagles?
There is an easy answer, really. This would have detracted from what remains a simple story of what it means to be a fan and how people need something to look up during hard times. One telling detail about the movie’s motives: Vince is not a quarterback or anything glamorous like that, he’s merely one of the players on special teams. He doesn’t even receive the ball. He plays defense, trying to tackle the guy who does. “Invincible” may not entirely live up to its name, but for a film that’s steeped in familiarity, it is a noble entry into an ever-crowding genre.
Fun fact: A made-for-TV Disney movie from 1998 starring Tony Danza was also loosely based on the story of Vince Papale called “The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon.”