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A Clichéd, but Still Engaging, Sports Drama

Start with 1942’s Pride of the Yankees, skip ahead three decades to Bang the Drum Slowly, and then jump ahead another two decades to Rudy, Remember the Titans, Miracle, and Glory Road. What do they have in common? All are sports dramas, of course. All were marketed and sold as "feel good"/"based on true events" storylines. After all, sports dramas tap into the individualist ethos that are and have been a part of the American Dream. Which leads us to Invincible.

Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, is facing hard times. It's the mid 70s in Philadelphia and jobs are scarce and Vince can only get work as a substitute teacher two days a week and part time work as a bartender at Max’s (Michael Rispoli) bar. There, his childhood friends, Tommy (Kirk Acevedo), Johnny (Dov Davidoff), Pete (Michael Kelly), and Mick (Sal Darigo), drink beers, play pool, complain about the sorry state of their lives, and chew the fat about the Eagles’ prospects in the fall. They also play pickup football games against rival teams in a dusty parking lot nearby. Not surprisingly, Vince is the best player.

The Eagles have a new coach in Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), an ex-college coach making the jump to professional football. Expected to usher in a new era of winning football, Vermeil tries to get Philly’s notoriously fickle fans on board by calling open tryouts. Anyone who wants to try out for the team can. From the hundreds of out-of-shape, semi-delusional walk-ons who try out for the team, only Vince gets an invite to training camp. Now Vince has to survive training camp and the multiple rounds of cuts that always begin the same way, “The coach wants to see you in his office. Bring your playbook.” With Vermeil pressured to field the best players and win some games, Vince’s chances of making the Eagles, even as a special teams player, is unlikely. Then again, Vince also has to deal with being hated by his potential teammates.

Why go all the way back to the 1970s for another "feel-good" sports film about an underdog athlete overcoming obstacles to obtain his dream? As inspirational as Vince Papale’s story might be, his career lasted only three years, all of them as a special teams player. Maybe the answer goes something like this: because untrained or inexperienced athletes walking on to a professional sports team, the purest distillation of the underdog/sports genre, just hasn't happened too often (for obvious reasons). Several other factors should be also considered: nostalgia. It shouldn't come as a surprise that, in the real world, Dick Vermeil was known for his emotion-laden press conferences where, instead of a sign of weakness, Vermeil's emotional openness was seen as evidence that he cared deeply in winning and for his team.

Unfortunately, cinematographer-turned-helmer Ericson Core (Daredevil, The Fast and the Furious) uses all of the clichés of the sports drama to get the audience on Papale’s side, including slow-motion shots, an overactive camera and, of course, period rock and pop songs to remind us that -- yes -- we’re seeing and hearing a recreation of the mid-1970s (as if the bad hair, clothing styles, and American cars weren’t enough). Core isn’t interested in subtlety, in letting the characters and the story unfold naturally, with a minimum of directorial intervention (or is interference), and letting moviegoers appreciate the characters and the “underdog” story on their own.

Too bad, because Brad Gann’s (Black Irish) screenplay touches on key socio-economic changes that occurred in the 70s and 80s, the loss of blue-collar jobs overseas before “globalization” became a buzzword that mainly applied to the loss of white-collar jobs to overseas competition. Vince’s friends want him to succeed because their futures hold little promise. With jobs gone or rapidly disappearing, Vince’s friends have few skills to compete. Vince’s struggle against the odds and his eventual, if short-lived, success, allows his friends to share his success vicariously. In a close, tight-knit neighborhood, individual success turns into communal celebration and pride. It makes the nostalgia that Core works so hard to achieve through period detail and music, more bittersweet than he intended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars