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Movie Review: “When the Game Stands Tall”

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Have you ever had one of those moments when you think you’re saying something super important, but nobody seems to be taking you seriously? It’s almost as if the harder you try, the more laughs your so-called “message” receives. I hate to say it, but this is exactly what happened while I was watching “When the Game Stands Tall.” The only thing is, I was the soulless jerk who was giggling when I was supposed to be feeling glorious, divine inspiration. Now, I’d like to think that I’m not some heartless cynic with a heart of granite, but years of watching every sports-inspired

Jim Caviezel and his team in "When the Game Stands Tall"

“Play the game with passion,” instructs Jim Caviezel.

film under the sun will do that to a person. Throughout the years, I’ve probably witnessed almost every, single, triumphant, athletically-inspired moment ever captured on camera. I was there when little Rudy Ruettiger was carried off the field by his Notre Dame teammates after sacking the quarterback on the last play of the season. I was also there when Jimmy Chitwood stroked that last-second, game-winning shot which gave the Hickory Huskers the win in the State Finals. I was there when Coach Ken Carter put a lock on the gym doors in the middle of the Richmond Oilers unlikely, undefeated season in order to teach his players a valuable life lesson. And I was there to witness the invincibility of Philadelphia Eagles special-teamer Vince Papale, the trials and tribulations of the Permian High School Panthers, the courage of Coach Don Haskins and his Texas Western University Miners, AND the magical madness that occurred in Ray Kinsella’s cornfield ballpark. Apparently, the filmmakers behind “When the Game Stands Tall” were there during all of these moments as well… and they were taking plenty of notes. Actually, this isn’t that far from the truth. Remember earlier when I mentioned the coach that put the lock on the gym doors? Well, that was from a 2005 film called “Coach Carter,” which was directed by a fellow named Thomas Carter. Not only was Carter responsible for “Coach Carter,” but he also acted in another classic sports TV series from the late 1970′s/early 1980′s called “The White Shadow.” Now, I’ll give you ONE GUESS who’s responsible for directing “When the Game Stands Tall.” Yup, you got it — Thomas Carter. It seems as if Carter called upon his own previous experiences in sports-related cinema, as well as bits and pieces from every other sports movie ever made — INCLUDING the ones I previously mentioned. There are absolutely ZERO original moments during the 115 minutes of “When the Game Stands Tall.” Seriously, it’s one thing to draw inspiration from other movies, but it’s a whole different thing to blatantly copy them. To be fair, there aren’t too many cinematic genres that are quite as creatively drained as the “sports movie,” but, I mean, how many different ways can you tell the underdog story? And how many different ways can you present activities that have barely changed for decades and decades? The answer is not too many. From the start, Carter and company seemed to be struggling mightily to tell this “inspirational” tale with any type of flair or artistry. However, it’s not totally their fault. “When the Game Stands Tall” is kind of like the anti-underdog story, which is not the easiest tale to tell. Honestly, how can you feature a team rising up against adversity and redeeming themselves when they were the ones doling out all the punishment earlier in the film? Well, the filmmakers take the easy way out and get “other” forces involved. They bypass the athletic aspect and simply take the high road, which in this case is the REALLY high road. Sports and religion have always been a match made in heaven — literally. Whenever an athlete achieves a personal goal or

A still from "When the Game Stands Tall"

This player has the “hands of God”… literally.

his team achieves that goal together, a higher power always seems to be behind the success. Ever since the first beat reporter interviewed his first superstar, God has been part of the conversation. Those behind “When the Game Stands Tall” have certainly taken this into consideration, as religion and spirituality definitely play major parts in this film. So much so, that it felt like it was being forced upon me throughout the process and I HATE being force-fed anything. Now, I’m not completely against the combination of spirituality and cinema, but there’s a time and a place for it. Take the recent “Son of God” for example. Going into it, I knew this film was going to be about the birth of Christianity and the life of Jesus himself and even though I wasn’t a huge fan of this particular film, I didn’t feel blindsided by its message. However, I felt like I was being cheaply manipulated during the entire time I was watching “When the Game Stands Tall.” It was like the filmmakers were using football to draw unsuspecting audience members in, so they could hit them over the head with religion once they got them. It was a cheap tactic, since the trailers hid the film’s religious aspects quite well. I probably should have suspected some kind of religion involved. I mean Jim Caviezel (who plays head football coach Bob Ladouceur in the film) DID play Jesus at one point in his career. The narrative of the film focuses on the saga of the De La Salle Spartans — a real-life high school football juggernaut from Concord, California who won 151 games in a row from 1992 to 2004. I WILL give the filmmakers credit for NOT telling the obvious side of the story and documenting “the streak” from beginning to end. They actually start with the team’s first loss, which attempts to create a tale of redemption instead of domination. It’s a non-traditional decision that takes courage, which might be the best compliment I can give those behind this below-average letdown. That being said, the film is about a team that NEVER loses and it’s kind of difficult to root for the bullies in ANY story. And any team that beats the crap out of their opponents for 12 years-straight in a bully in my book. I’m fairly sure that screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith (based on a book of the same name by sportswriter Neil Hayes) is aware of this fact and his attempts to humble some of the more cocky players is a welcome addition, although not a particularly well-executed one. The only problem is that these “cocky players” are walking, talking sports movie stereotypes. You end up feeling nothing

Alexander Ludwig in "When the Game Stands Tall"

Here, hold my helmet while I go after Katniss.

but contempt for some of these players and even when they eventually redeem themselves you don’t really seem to care. All they’ve known is winning, so when they literally cry after they lose their first game (following 151 straight wins for Caviezel’s sake!) I felt like yelling at the screen, “It’s not that big of a deal. Stop blubbering, it’s only one loss!” The majority of these players are like spoiled brats. So much so that I found myself WANTING them to lose. Is that wrong of me? There is a bit of tragedy that befalls this team as well, but it all seems so forced. Even though this film was based on a non-fictional story, it had a layer of phoniness to it that only a true sports movie can provide. Every player on the team is a round peg, every coach is a square peg, and every player’s parent is a triangular one… and they all fit in their respective holes SO nicely. For example, veteran character actor Clancy Brown portrays Mickey Ryan — the abusive father of star running back Chris Ryan (played by Alexander Ludwig of “The Hunger Games” and HISTORY’s “Vikings”).  Now, Brown does an admirable job with the character he’s given, but it’s not his performance I had an issue with. Although, I’m not sure if Mickey Ryan is based on a real-life person, but even if he is, he’s a shameless ripoff of Tim McGraw’s turn as Charles Billingsley in the big screen adaptation of outspoken sports journalist (and Nick Foles hater) H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s ode to Texas high school football “Friday Night Lights.” Let’s get one thing straight, “Friday Night Lights” was a brilliant book (I strongly recommend it), a memorable movie, and an even better TV series and those behind “When the Game Stands Tall” would love to be mentioned alongside this iconic pigskin classic. Sadly, both films aren’t even in the same sport, let alone the same arena. Caviezel, who’s never been able to live up to the hype his breakthrough role in Mel Gibson’s in-your-face classic “The Passion of the Christ” generated, genuinely seems bored in his role as head coach Ladouceur. He’s supposed to be an energetic motivator and molder of young minds, but he comes across as an uninterested, melancholy sad-sack who’s simply going through the motions in both his professional and family life. I can understand why the latter is lacking, as Ladouceur experiences his own (literal) heartache that forces him to put things in perspective as far as his personal life goes. However, I’m not exactly sure why he played the coaching half of Ladouceur with such little personality. During the credits, a little bit of documentary footage featuring the real-life Ladouceur giving his players an inspirational

Clancy Brown terrorizes Alexander Ludwig in "When the Game Stands Tall"

What you mean you feel like you’re in “The Karate Kid”?

halftime speech was shown. Personally, I saw more energy from the real head coach during this three-minute segment than I did from Caviezel during the whole film. This confirms my personal theory that Jim Caviezel must have God himself for an agent. It’s the only explanation as to why he keeps getting these leading roles. QUICK SIDE NOTE: The aforementioned documentary footage during the credits got me thinking. If they possessed this level of footage, why wasn’t a documentary-style film about De La Salle made instead of this docu-drama? I would have LOVED to see how the real-life Ladouceur turned his team from good to great. I mean, more than a dozen De La Salle players from the “streak era” (as well as a bunch of players from the era AFTER the streak ended) have had successful careers in the NFL, so I’m sure they could have had more than enough  info to create such a piece. It just boggles my mind as to why they botched such a fantastic opportunity. Like Clancy Brown, most of the actors do their best regarding the achingly sweet script they had to work with. Michael Chiklis is… well… very Michael Chiklis-like in his role as Ladouceur’s right-hand man Coach Terry Edison, while veteran actress Laura Dern‘s talent is absolutely wasted as Ladouceur’s wife Bev. Most of De La Salle’s players are portrayed by unknown actors, but (again) they all pull their weight the best they can. This list of young, strapping upstarts includes Matthew Daddario, who plays Ladouceur’s son (who is also the team’s starting wide receiver) Danny. If the name Daddario looks familiar, well, that’s because his fetchingly beautiful (and decidedly more famous) sister Alexandra has achieved quite a bit of fame herself during the last few years with projects like HBO’s “True Detective,” “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” and the “Percy Jackson” film franchise. I think I can safely say that I wish that SHE would have played this role instead of her brother. At least it would’ve given the film a shocking “True Detective”-ish twist… and made everything quite a bit more interesting (and sexier) to watch. Personal dreams aside, I must state once again that I HATE being TOLD how I should feel while I’m watching a film and

Michael Chiklis and Jim Caviezel in "When the Game Stands Tall"

The sunglasses “shield” them the glare of pretentiousness.

“When the Game Stands Tall” was guilty of this unforgivable sin from start to finish. The only time I didn’t feel manipulated was during those aforementioned credits when the documentary footage started rolling. I’m from the old school where emotions should be purveyed with a simple look rather than loads of unnecessary dialogue. It doesn’t seem like director Thomas Carter or screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith are aware of this sentiment whatsoever. I’m a big fan of subtlety in my cinema and “When the Game Stands Still” is about as subtle as a horse-collar tackle. Granted, there aren’t a lot of sports films that follow this sentiment either, but when they do manage to do so they are so much more effective at telling their story. Just compare films like the “Friday Night Lights” movie and “Hoosiers,” which are about what’s inside of those that play the sport, to films like the polarizing “Rudy” (I actually happen to like it — don’t hold it against me) and the shameless Disney fluff-piece “Invincible,” which are about manipulating the sport for narrative purposes. Movies are supposed to inspire as well as inform and this particular film is convinced that it’s doing both at a high level, but it’s really doing neither very well at all. When it comes to sports, everybody loves an underdog, except in this film the main characters are more like a bunch of Apollo Creeds rather than Rocky Balboas. The end result is an uninteresting story about one-dimensional characters you can’t wait to see fail, which is why it was so difficult to keep a straight face during the excessively serious segments… … which is why they should have called it “When the Game Stands Still” instead.

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