Release: Friday, August 22, 2014
Dignity and courage. Those are two words you cannot separate out of any sports movie, good, bad or ugly. Whether handled delicately or with blunt force, there comes a point where the film either shoehorns in these values or cleverly suggests them through a combination of strong writing and impassioned performance.
When the Game Stands Tall is a film based on the trials and tribulations experienced by the De La Salle Spartans, a central-California high school football team put through the wringer when they first surrender an unheard-of 151-game winning streak to a team they could have beaten. They then lose their head coach temporarily to overwhelming stress that culminates in a heart attack and his sitting out for a good portion of the season. And finally the increasingly desperate Spartans tragically lose a key player and good student to a senseless act of street violence.
Reality is often more like a nightmare, and this is hardly the first time young players’ mettle has been tested for the sake of general audience entertainment. The fact’s not offensive so much as it is uninspiring. As trying a time as this is for a once-proud team (goodness only knows what it was like for the real community), this particular film — one built almost exclusively out of cliches — is much more so.
Beginning with a ruthlessly jejune Jim Caviezel as head coach Bob Ladoucer, any honest evaluation of this poorly-conceived model of sports-as-therapy must take note of him and his flat delivery first and foremost. After all, this is ostensibly his movie, given the fact he was responsible for building such a winning team over the years. However, his part is written so poorly and unfortunately Caviezel delivers so awkwardly that whatever dignity remains in the film, it pertains more to side-line issues. Where Coach is meant to inspire and invigorate his team — indirectly, us — with spirited pep talks that emphasize brotherhood, faith and character, he instead lectures and recites, driving any interest to continue listening right out the door. . .along with any reasonable viewer or casual sports fan.
The many tough faces of Ladouceur are intended to reinforce the unique circumstances; evidence of how thin he had stretched himself to make the team exceptional. But Caviezel takes it to the point of effecting numbness. Even the practice dummies players drill themselves into repeatedly have more personality than he does. It should be mentioned that the emphasis on his listless expressions throughout many scenes is one rather ill-advised move on the part of director Thomas Carter. The actor is absolutely not the only one to blame. Unfortunately he bears the distinction of being caught in the act.
When moving away from this disastrous crusade to prove the head coaching position ain’t for everyone, we thankfully intercept only decreasing levels of terribleness on the offensive and defensive ends. Supporting cast isn’t exactly impressive but they at least offer up something akin to what is expected of a sports-film, performance-wise. Richard Kohnke, along with Alexander Ludwig, Matthew Daddario, Stephan James and Ser’Darius Blain round out the key players at the quarterback position and offensive line, respectively.
While Kohnke’s Rick Salinas is at the star position, he’s largely bereft of complexity but that’s not really a problem, as he doesn’t have much screen time. Ludwig follows the trajectory of
every most mis-interpreted jocks who have issues at home. In this case, he’s slave to an overly-enthusiastic father (Clancy Brown) who demands the best from his son, and wants nothing more than for De La Salle to get back on track. Who knew statistics were more important than family? Meanwhile, Daddario is handed the part of the coach’s son Danny, whom Ladouceur is compelled to protect until the very last minute. No need to worry; nothing terrible happens, though I’m sure you’re aware already of that kind of conflict resolution. “Show me what you got, kid.” (And then he does precisely that.)
The Game somehow finds a pulse in James’ T.K. Kelly, an impressive athlete and genuinely nice guy who is struck down at the ripe age of 18. Not only is his story the strongest of the lot, the young actor offers up an affectionate spirit we can actually support. Sports fans often seek enthusiasm out of the stories they seek out on the silver screen. James is one of the few who doesn’t look disinterested in being on set. He’s also not an uncompromisingly stereotypical player, though his journey to a heartbreaking premature end isn’t the biggest break from convention.
There’s no denying some of the emotional build-up is actually earned. An overt religious overtone actually helps elevate moments of sadness rather than drown them in off-putting sentimentalism. One particular speech comes to mind. And Caviezel has a moment or two where he doesn’t seem to be rehearsing his lines. But as far as I am concerned and the way I like my sports represented, I should have come equipped with more padding for the beating I was going to take when it comes to the cliched and predictable.
When it comes down to it, When the Game Stands Tall forgets to really take a stand for anything.
Recommendation: One can probably do much worse than Thomas Carter’s woeful interpretation of a community rallying around their local sports team in the wake of multiple difficult circumstances. But that’s a coin with another side to it, and of course you are going to come across far superior versions. Hopefully one day there’ll be a better movie to represent this incredibly resilient community. I don’t really recommend this one even to sports buffs considering the other competition that’s out there waiting.
Running Time: 115 mins.
Quoted: “Family isn’t just blood relatives. You’ve got me and 60 brothers. . .”
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.