Four years ago, The Disney Company generated a lot of box-office with The Rookie, a baseball story based on the life of Jim Morris, whose arrival in the big leagues, (he pitched for The Tampa Bay Devil Rays) didn’t occur until he’d reached the age at which most players retire. The highly glossed story of Morris’ journey from high school coach to hard throwing reliever was shot through with messages about the value of persistence and the importance of family, values perfectly attuned to Disney’s marketplace strategy. The film also benefited immeasurably from the presence of Dennis Quaid in the leading role; his quiet, aw-shucks personality formed the core of the movie, giving the characters that revolved around his successful transformation from has-been to major leaguer the opportunity to play off his homespun likeability. Rookie’s producers discovered a winning formula; not surprisingly, they set about reproducing it.
This time, the setting is Philadelphia in the middle seventies, when now-legendary coach Dick Vermeil was recruited to rebuild the moribund Eagles, that city’s professional football team. In an unheard-of move, Vermeil held open tryouts, prompting substitute teacher & part-time bartender Vincent Papale to join hundreds of other hopefuls at Veteran’s Stadium early in the summer of 1976. To everyone’s surprise, (including his own) Papale, with but a single season of high school play on his resume, survived the rigors of training camp and the scorn of his professional peers to win a position on the team, scoring their first touchdown that season in what was to become the rebirth of The Eagles as a national championship franchise. Papale was no fluke; despite his age, he went on to play for three seasons before retiring as a local hero.
Director Ericson Core and screenwriter Brad Gann add a degree of interesting sociological commentary to Invincible, suggesting that The Eagle’s hometown, blue collar fans invested Papale’s achievement with an importance which reflected their desire to see “one of their own” enjoy a level of success in which they could vicariously participate. A handful of instantly-recognizable character actors (Michael Rispoli, Kirk Acevedo, Michael Mulheren, etc.) often seen in gangster movies and television series, provide convincingly detailed portraits of working-class life in South Philly, with its focus on local sports teams, sporadic employment, neighborhood gin mills and the declining supply of well-paying union jobs. The aspirations of Papale’s thirty-something buddies, still playing sand-lot football and struggling with the fact that the most exciting part of their lives just might lie behind them, invest Invincible with a wistful atmosphere of individual accomplishments that morph into group ones, which may go a long way in explaining the otherwise inexplicable fanaticism of sports fans across the country.
Mark Whalberg, (Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm, The Italian Job) invests Papale with a sweetly attractive humility that permits the often inarticulate speeches made by his friends to indirectly explore the roots of Papale’s determination to succeed at something - - and his incredulity when he finally does so. Comparisons with Cinderella Man and The Rookie are inevitable, but this rags-to-riches story from the city Rocky made famous works well nonetheless. Whalberg’s placid expressions and unassuming manner, (at considerable variance with the actor’s felonious and violent early history) make understated characters his trademark and he employs that technique here quite effectively. Unfortunately, Greg Kinnear, (Little Miss Sunshine, As Good As It Gets) fails to convey the intensity behind Dick Vermeil’s charm and personality; a single, biting accusation, (made after Papale misses a tackle in his opening appearance) provides the only hint of the fierce determination this two-time NFL championship coach provided athletes who excelled under his leadership. Invincible isn’t his story of course, but the movie could have been immeasurably improved by a more nuanced presentation of his coaching alchemy. Blond and fresh-faced Elizabeth Banks provides just the right touch of vulnerable bravado as the only daughter in a New York Giants football-mad family who becomes Papale’s sweetheart and biggest fan.
Despite the fact that Core made his mark as a cinematographer with such action movies as Payback, Daredevil and The Fast & Furious, the camerawork in Invincible remains formulaic, even during the quite realistic gridiron scenes. Perhaps that’s just as well; this straightforward tale of modest triumph isn’t well suited to a flashy cinematic style that might detract from its presentation of an unassuming athlete’s surprising success. Besides, this plain-vanilla cinematography works perfectly well when combined with the movie’s sound-track of period rock hits which add additional auditory commentary to what’s happening on the screen.
The verdict? A small, uncomplicated story, satisfyingly told.
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