Not too long ago, inspirational sports films were nearly as prevalent as the superhero films of the last few years. As cycles come and go in the film industry, the sun set on the sports films right around the time that Bernie Mac and Terrence Howard coached an inner city swim team in 2007’s “Pride.”
Though their time in the sun has passed, Hollywood still allows a couple to trickle through theaters every now and then. This year has seen “50 to 1,” a horse racing film, “From the Rough,” a golf film starring Taraji P. Henson, and now “When the Game Stands Tall,” a football film just in time for the kickoff to fall.
The film chronicles the true tale of the De La Salle Spartans, a high school football team that snapped a 151-game winning streak. Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) preaches honor and integrity to his players, focusing more on molding them into men than making sure the school has a full trophy case. His principles and devotion have led the team to the longest winning streak in the history of sports, amateur or professional. When tragedy strikes the team and the streak comes to an end, they have to regain their focus and start rebuilding the program.
The film also stars a bearded Michael Chiklis as Ladoucer’s assistant coach, Laura Dern as Mrs. Ladoucer, and up-and-comer Alexander Ludwig as the team’s star athlete looking to break the career touchdown record.
If you watch the trailer, it may seem like a made-for-TV version of a film you’ve already seen several times before. You wouldn’t be too far off. Though the discipline and values that the film strives to teach are admirable, they’re not exactly new ideas. Despite being a true story, the film comes across as someone checking off a list of sport movie clichés while the audience waits for the inevitably predictable conclusion.
The first 15 minutes of the film sets it up for failure by featuring some of the worst editing I’ve seen in a major feature film. Even knowing the story going in, I felt like I was playing catch-up as the story shot back and forth in timeline, set up “the streak,” and introduced a half-dozen characters with different storylines that end up not even being essential to the film’s plot. Everything after these first few scenes seems brilliant by comparison.
Sadly the script also fails to deliver any interesting dialogue or even a cool pre-game speech. It all seems pulled from everyday life, but not in a good, authentic way. It’s more like you combined a rehash of every other sport film with the mundane conversation you had at work yesterday. The story of De La Salle High School is worth a film being made, but a documentary might have hit the nail on the head more effectively.
Even the worst script can be made better if the actor is behind it and breathing life into it, but Jim Caviezel seems ultimately bored with the material and, especially, the character he’s playing. Everything is spoken with a flat tone that would make even a decent script seem rough. The only actor who really seems to care is Ludwig, who has made a pretty good name for himself since being the little kid in “Race to Witch Mountain” (Yes, that’s him. We all feel old.) Though his character is extremely reminiscent of Garret Hedlund’s Don Billingsley in “Friday Night Lights,” he does well with the material to try and make it his own.
The saving grace of the film is that the scenes on the field are pretty fun to watch. There’s a lot of slow motion, hurdling, and stiff-arming to keep you entertained and the sound effects of each hit are a perfect crunching sound.
“When the Game Stands Tall” doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s a family friendly film being released at the perfect time of year for its subject matter. The game of football itself is what makes the film watchable. If you are not a fan of the game and you’re looking for a really great film, I suggest looking elsewhere.