I am about as far removed from the category of “Sports Fan” as one can get. I don’t like them. I don’t like to watch them. They don’t make sense to me. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey. They are all lost on me. Yet, I continue to go and see films based on memorable figures in these activities. In the last few years, studios have begun to release a different sort of “Sports Film”, films exploring the lives of memorable people who happen to be involved in the sport. The majority of these films depict their lives, their struggles, what makes them human. “The Rookie”, “Miracle” and now “Invincible” are better films because they place less emphasis on the sport.
Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) and his friends watch the last home game of their beloved Philadelphia Eagles in December, 1975. The Eagles have just ended three years of loses, leading their devoted fans to turn against them. To make matters worse, Vince is struggling at work. His hours as a substitute teacher have been cut, so he takes shifts at his friend Max’s (Michael Rispoli) bar. His wife walks out on him and he feels like he has hit bottom. His friends are also struggling with strikes, loss of work, general problems. The next summer, the Eagles hire UCLA coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) to transform the team. The first thing Vermeil does is announce the team will hold open tryouts on the following Saturday. Vince’s friends urge him to try out, but at 30 years old, he seems a long shot and hesitates to commit. He doesn’t really want any more disappointment. Max’s cousin, Janet (Elizabeth Banks, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”) arrives from New York, and takes some shifts at the bar. A die hard Giant’s fan, she helps Vince realize his love for the game, so he tries out. Vermeil sees that Vince is trying, harder than many of the seasoned professional players, and gives him a shot. Soon, Vince becomes a poster boy for the fans, helping them to forget their problems and root for their beloved home team.
“Invincible”, directed by Ericson Core, and produced by the same people who made the memorable “The Rookie” featuring Dennis Quaid and Rachel Griffiths, features another winning performance from Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg may not be a great actor, but he is quietly creating an impressive body of work. Each performance is consistent, interesting and believable. From what I know of his background, he seems to bring part of his background into the roles he has played; a naïve young man who learns he has a talent as a ‘performer’ and takes a shine to it, a man who has always had trouble in his life, but now needs to avenge the death of his adopted mother, a man who is down on his luck, but has one last chance to fulfill a dream. He has more trouble playing “characters”, people who are more showy and theatrical; a spy romancing Thandie Newton in Paris, trying to uncover a secret about her dead husband, or an astronaut who lands on a planet and finds a different race has taken over. As Vince Papale, Wahlberg convincingly recreates the man’s struggles, emotions and problems. Throughout this roller coaster, he makes everything believable, so much so it seems like we are actually watching the man’s life. At every turn, Papale faces a new struggle and is so down on himself, he never expects to get very far. As he progresses through the various cuts on the team, he surprises himself and begins to find real joy in playing the game again.
Elizabeth Banks is also a lot of fun to watch. This performance is a lot more subtle than her recent work, but also very different. She plays Janet, a New York native who moves to Philadelphia to work in her cousin’s bar. Since Vince is working there as well, they form a friendship. The unique thing about her character is that she is a die hard New York Giants fan. In Philadelphia, at least during this period, that was a bad thing. The regular patrons of the bar give her constant ribbing, but since she is related to the owner, and she is beautiful, they tolerate it. As Janet and Vince get to know each other, they have to deal with the realities of the period; everyone is out of work, or on strike, depressed, both are getting over relationships. While they are attracted to one another, they don’t immediately jump in the sack. They go on a few dates, never feel like the time is right, etc. It seems very natural.
Greg Kinnear plays Dick Vermeil and he does a very good job. He clearly portrays the man’s obsessive nature, yet he is married as well, and his wife seems to recognize these traits and accept them.
The supporting cast of very recognizable character actors all lends a note of authenticity to the film. Everyone has the historically accurate, yet unfortunate, hair styles and clothes of the mid 70s. But their characters go beyond that. As Max, the owner of the bar, Vincent Rispoli (who you would probably recognize from many gangster films) does a nice job as the sort of neighborhood mayor. Papale’s friends are all memorable and interesting.
Director Core does a really thorough and believable job of evoking 1976 in Philadelphia. In this neighborhood, things aren’t going well, and that comes through in every frame. The most immediate thing we notice is that every frame has a dusty brown sepia tint. This may sound obtrusive at first, but it quickly sets the mood and tone of the piece, and our eye quickly adjusts. Throughout, he uses a series of static shots, of interiors of buildings, strike activity, etc. to provide a transition between scenes. This is an effective and unique method of placing us squarely in the time and place.
I had never heard of the director before and looked him up on IMDB. One of his credits is as the cinematographer on the short-lived and completely underappreciated “EZ Streets”, a television series starring Ken Olin, Joe Pantoliano and Jason Gedrick. In this series, the cinematography is one of the most stunning aspects of the show. In each episode, the colors get progressively monochromatic until everything is almost gray and white. This brilliantly evokes the mood of the characters. Now that I know Core worked on both “EZ Streets” and “Invincible”, the connection makes sense. Each is shot in a very stylized, but unique way that serves the story, making it better.
The film works well on another level. Once Papale is asked to join the Eagles and become a part of their training camp, he goes along with it, but because of his situation, and that of all of his friends, he never expects to get very far. In other words, the filmmakers are telling us Papale is “humble”, but it works because Wahlberg makes it believable, and it becomes a much more subtle character trait. During training, as he makes it through the various cuts, he seems amazed with each new step. And when he finally becomes a member of the team, he initially stumbles and has to find his footing before he becomes the promising new hope Coach Vermeil was looking for.
“Invincible” is much more interested in depicting the life of a memorable figure in Football, rather than some climactic “big game”. As Papale participates in his first home game, Janet shows up with the rest of his friends, ready to root him on. But she doesn’t forsake her favored New York Giants, the other team, and wears their jersey, welcoming the boos and cheers. Throughout the game, she is happy when the Giants are doing well, but also happy when Papale does well, helping the team score a victory.
The film doesn’t hinge on that all important “big game”; the Super Bowl, an important rivalry, etc. It hinges on Papale’s success and when he helps the team score a hometown victory, the film has told the story and it ends.
“Invincible” is an enjoyable film, telling the story of interesting characters, in an interesting period of our country’s history. And it’s about sports as well.