By Alan Sepinwall
Of the many addictions that rule my life, none has more controlling power than my chemical devotion to underdog sports movies.
You give me a plucky loser trying to overcome the odds at any athletic endeavor, and I'm there. Doesn't matter if the movie is unfathomably stupid. If I stumble across The Air Up There (Kevin Bacon teaching basketball to Africans) or The Replacements (a movie that tries to make scab players sympathetic), I can't change the channel until it's over. Doesn't matter if I don't know or care about the sport in question. I have repeatedly Netflix'ed a four-hour Bollywood musical about cricket (Lagaan) and spent money to rent a comedy about curling (Men with Brooms). Curling.
My unfortunate condition dates back to the late '70s, when my father purchased our first VCR, a bulky monstrosity that didn't even have a wireless remote (it attached to the unit with a cord that was so short you were guaranteed to lose your eyesight using it long-term). We only had a couple of cable channels (HBO didn't program 24/7 back then) and the over-the-air stations were too full of news and soap operas and other shows that catered to grown-ups, so the idea of being able to record shows I liked and watching them over and over and over again was the bestest thing ever.
The first two movies I remember recording were Meatballs and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. You may not think of Meatballs as an underdog sports movie, but it climaxes with Bill Murray's awkward kid sidekick winning a four-mile run against one of the meanies from Camp Mohawk. And, of course, Breaking Training is the only Bad News Bears movie where the team is any good. ("Let them play! Let them play! Let them play!") Channel 11 almost never showed the original because it was too dirty to be properly edited for broadcast, so when I finally got to see it, I was stunned to see the Bears lose the big game.
As I've grown older, I've learned to accept that my fake sports heroes aren't always going to win (and, in a movie like Tin Cup, the miracle win would've been pretty lame), but I find myself enjoying the fake sports a lot more than the real thing these days. Maybe it's because two of the three teams I follow, the NY Giants and Knicks, have made winning ugly into an artform, but it's nice to be guaranteed a victory in scripted form (even if it's just a moral one, like in Rocky). As I wrote in my first review of the Friday Night Lights TV show, the thrill of victory may be sweeter if you risk the agony of defeat, but sometimes we just don't want to suffer, do we?
In keeping with the "5 For The Day" tradition of avoiding the most obvious choices, I'm not going to include Hoosiers (a masterpiece, other than the fact that they cut the scene explaining how Buddy rejoins the team), Rocky, Breaking Away, or even Rudy (a movie I adore, even though it may be the most polarizing example of the genre). I also won't be including sports movies that don't follow the formula (i.e., no Bull Durham or Field of Dreams) or documentaries (not even When We Were Kings, which couldn't be better if it was scripted). I couldn't in good conscience consider chess a sport, or else Searching for Bobby Fischer would be on there. In no particular order...
1. Miracle: In my definitive list of the top 5, this movie would be in the mix with Rocky and the three aforementioned movies set in Indiana. But because it's one in a long run of factory-produced Disney movies in the genre (Father's Day gift gimmes each year), I don't think it gets the credit it deserves. (Not even on this blog.) It's a really superb movie, a great example of how it doesn't matter how familiar the tune is if you sing the hell out of it.
A lot of the credit for that goes to Kurt Russell as "miracle on ice" coach Herb Brooks. The Disney factory sports movies generally get strong lead performances (Denzel in Remember the Titans, Dennis Quaid in The Rookie), but Russell is a cut above in his dedication to portraying the flintiness of Brooks, who was the last man cut from the last U.S. Olympic hockey team to win the gold, and who spent the ensuing 20 years obsessing on a way to get the gold medal he was deprived of. The sequence immediately after the U.S. team pulls off the stunning win over the the Soviets is a masterclass in silent acting: Brooks first looks to the devastated Soviet coach, then to his adoring wife, completely at a loss of what to say to either one; then, as the crowd keeps cheering and/or running onto the ice, Brooks pushes himself out into the hallway, squats down in a deserted corner and simultaneously celebrates the improbable victory while grieving over everything he gave up in the last two decades to make it happen. The best moment of a really underrated acting career.
Russell has to dominate the movie in part because director Gavin O'Connor chose to fill the cast with hockey players who could be taught to act a little, rather than the other way around. (Eddie Cahill is the exception as goalie Jim Craig, since the mask meant he could be easily replaced with a stunt goalie for the game sequences.) Still, Eric Guggenheim's screenplay gives at least as strong a sense of the players as, say, we got in Hoosiers (where I still have no idea why the players stand up to Gene Hackman in the final huddle), with a handful—sensitive Craig, cocky Jack O'Callahan (Michael Mantenuto) and team captain Mike Eruzione (Patrick O'Brien Demsey)—becoming genuine characters. And by prizing hockey skill first, O'Connor (along with cinematographer Daniel Stoloff and editor John Gilroy) are able to do an astonishing 20 minute-plus recreation of the miracle on ice game, one of the rare occasions where scripted sports action is as exciting and easy to follow as the real thing.
There are the usual flaws you get in virtually all these movies (Patricia Clarkson is wasted as Mrs. Brooks, the attempts at putting the game in a bigger sociological picture don't really work), but I could watch the movie's final hour every day for the rest of my life and not get tired of it.
2. Slap Shot: One of my favorite comedies ever, one of my favorite Paul Newman movies ever (it's this or Nobody's Fool), and just a delightfully profane, cynical, fun sports flick. Newman, who was past 50 at the time and finally decided it was okay to move away from the handsome thing, is Reg Dunlop, the never-was player-coach of a minor league hockey team in a dying factory town. Faced with news that the Chiefs' mysterious owner plans to fold the team, Dunlop decides to drum up interest in a potential sale—or, failing that, to land himself a job with another team—by turning the Chiefs into an outlaw squad of goons, inspired by the acquisition of the cheerfully violent Hanson brothers (Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson and Dave Hanson, who've been milking the characters for the last 30 years).
The movie is as anti-rah-rah as it gets. Even by today's standards, it's almost shockingly crude (go read some of the memorable quotes on its IMDb page, with Dunlop and Braden's exchange about underlining my favorite), The players—with the exception of college-educated Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean), who resists Dunlop's carnival goonery—are depicted as uniformly dumb, interested in hockey not out of any love for the game but a desire to either beat other guys' brains in or get laid (or, preferably, both). The local sportswriter (M. Emmet Walsh) has no problem fabricating stories as a favor for Reg. The owner is selling the team for tax purposes. And just when it looks like we're headed for some uplifting ending where Reg realizes it's better to lose playing the right way than win through cheap violence, the general manager mentions during intermission that there are scouts in the building, leading to one of the great one-two comedy edits of all-time: the wheels turning furiously in Dunlop's brain as he says "Scouts?," followed by a shot of the entire team brawling with their opponents while Braden looks on in disgust.
One warning: depending on which version of the DVD you get, you may not be able to get Maxine Nightingale's "Right Back Where We Started From" out of your head for at least a month.
3. Diggstown: Here's one that vanished without a trace about five minutes after it was released. Fortunately, during those five minutes me and some college friends were desperate for a movie to see on a rainy Friday night, and my sports movie addiction and loud voice drove us into that. Starts off as another rip-off of The Sting, with James Woods and Oliver Platt rolling into a boxing-crazy hick town to take down the local crimelord (Bruce Dern, enjoying himself beyond the legal limit) with a simple bet: that a retired semi-pro boxer (Lou Gossett Jr., allowed to be genuinely funny for one of the few times in his career) can knock out any 10 men in 24 hours.
The opening drags, there are a couple of murders that temporarily derail the light tone of the movie, and a very young Heather Graham pops up in an unfortunate supporting part as Woods' love interest (mercifully, we don't see anything more than him leering at her in Daisy Dukes), but the fight scenes are terrific, and when (not-so-spoiler alert) Lou won the inevitable impossible final bout against a younger, stronger foe, my friends and I all cheered—until the movie revealed that there was another fight to go, and the climax of that one was so brilliant and unexpected that we gave it a standing O. Maybe not a great movie, but it deserved better.
4. Major League: I wrestled seriously with giving this slot to the criminally underrated Bang the Drum Slowly (featuring Michael Moriarty as an ace pitcher and a young DeNiro as a catcher whose losing battle with Hodgkin's brings a bickering team together in a completely non-schmaltzy way), but eventually decided that the actual baseball action takes too much of a back seat to all the off-field shenanigans. (It's the right choice for the movie, but the wrong one for this list.)
That leaves Major League—in which the greedy new owner of the Cleveland Indians (Margaret Whitton, during the two and a half years when she was a bankable middle-aged sexpot) tries to put the worst team possible on the field so fans will stay away and she can move the team to Florida—as my token baseball pick.
When the movie came out, I remember sheepishly trying to explain to my father how the Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger characters weren't wholesale rip-offs of Nuke LaLoosh and Crash Davis ("You see, the pitcher with the million dollar arm and the five cent head just needs glasses, and, um...."), but it's aged quite well. Sheen's barely-conscious deadpan has rarely been used better ("I look like a banker in this"), James Gammon gives new meaning to "crusty but benign" as the old warhorse manager, and Wesley Snipes (flashy speedster Willie Mays Hays), Dennis Haysbert (voodoo slugger Pedro Cerrano) and Chelcie Ross (over-the-hill junkballer Eddie Harris) steal the movie out from under bigger names (at the time) Berenger and Corbin Bernsen.
Bill Simmons, ESPN.com's The Sports Guy, likes to rate sports movies based on the number of "chill scenes," those moments that give you goosebumps every time, like Rocky getting up off the canvas and beckoning at Apollo Creed, or Shooter Flatch calling the picket fence play. I don't know how much of this speaks to writer-director David S. Ward's skill and how much to my weird predilections, but I consider the one-game playoff against the Yankees as one long chill scene. All of the earlier set-ups about players' struggles pay off (often in funny ways, like bible-thumping Harris doing his warm-up pitches with Cerrano's statue of Jobu at the base of the mound), with a series of quotes that I still toss out while watching tense actual game situations: "I say fuck you, Jobu. I do it myself." "Forget about the curve balls, Ricky. Give 'im the heater." "Going somewhere, meat?" "'Bout 90 feet." Etc. The sequels suck, but the repeatability factor on the original is enormous.
5. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India: Screw it. I'm going to include the four-hour Bollywood musical about cricket. After all, I've watched it two and a half times (the half time I fast-forwarded through all the romance subplots) and would have watched it many more if I actually understood Hindi. (As it is, I'm grateful for the presence of Paul Blackthorne in the Billy Zane role as the mustache-twirling aristocratic bad guy, just so there's an occasional hint of English. Reading? Bleh.) Not that I understand the rules of cricket, either, but that's the thing about underdog sports movies: the cliches make even the most alien sports perfectly relatable.
So, the basic plot: in 19th century India, an angry young farmer makes a cricket wager with the aforementioned British 'stache-twirler in charge of the province. If the farmers, who have never played cricket in their lives, can beat the Brits, then the traditional tax they pay will be suspended for three years; if they lose, then they have to pay triple tax for three years, a prospect that would ruin everyone. So our plucky would-be Burt Reynolds (Aamir Khan) recruits a power-hitting Sikh who used to soldier with the English, a palsied Untouchable with a wicked curveball, a mute drummer and the usual bunch of outcasts. Who do you think's gonna win? Just pure joy, from start to finish.
Alan Sepinwall is a columnist for The Star-Ledger and publisher of the blog What's Alan Watching?