January 3, 2007
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rispoli, Kevin Conway, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Nicoye Banks, Stink Fisher, Michael Nouri, Paige Turco,
Underdog sports movies, when done well, can be a surefire formula for success. Get a sympathetic protagonist and pit him against insurmountable odds with a satisfying ending so that everyone leaves the theatre feeling all warm and fuzzy. Case in point: The Bad News Bears (1976) and Rocky (1976). In recent years, Disney has revitalized the genre with The Rookie (2002) and Miracle (2004). Their latest effort is Invincible (2006), the fictionalized account of how 30-year-old part-time bartender Vince Papale tried out for and made it onto the Philadelphia Eagles football team without even having played the game in college (the usual stepping stone to playing professional football, although he did play for the Philadelphia Bell of the now-defunct WFL).
The film opens with an amber toned montage of Philadelphia in the 1970s as we view the past through a blatantly nostalgic filter. Cut to a snowy December football game in 1975 where the Eagles are getting their asses kicked and the fans mercilessly boo their team’s pathetic efforts and so ending another losing season (11th in a row as it turns out). Cut to summer 1976 and Vince (Wahlberg) and his buddies are playing a “friendly” neighbourhood game of touch football (which usually involves plowing into each other without any pads) that illustrates their raw talent and love for the game. Vince substitute teaches during the day and bartends at night. It barely keeps a roof under him and his wife’s heads. Unfortunately, the city is in the grips of a financial depression and cutbacks quickly see the end to his teaching gig. To make matters worse, his wife leaves him.
In an attempt to get the Eagles back on track, they hire Dick Vermeil (Kinnear) from UCLA who holds open tryouts for anyone to give it their best shot. Vince’s friends jokingly suggest that he should try out. So, Vince decides to go for it with hundreds of other wannabes, most of whom are a joke. He is easily the best of the bunch and gets the attention of Vermeil who begins to take a personal interest in the man. Along the way, Vince even catches the eye of his local watering hole’s new bartender – a cute woman (Banks) who happens to be a New York Giants fan (a dangerous thing in South Philly). Vince figures he’ll never make the team but at least he can say that he tried. Of course, none of the other players give him the time of day and take a special interest in riding him hard on and off the field at every opportunity. Each day, Vince expects to be cut but much to his (and everyone else’s) surprise he not only survives the first round of cuts but eventually makes the final team.
Mark Wahlberg approaches the role with his best everyman take as his performance mirrors the attitude of the film itself – humble and workman-like. He’s likable in an unassuming way that works for this movie. Greg Kinnear turns in another solid performance as the legendary Dick Vermeil who certainly had his work cut out for him when he joined the Eagles. He was a risk taker as evident in his taking a big chance on a complete unknown like Papale.
Invincible definitely captures the intensity of the Philly sports fans and their, at times, fickle nature. When their teams do well they fiercely cheer them on, but when they do poorly, the fans aren’t afraid to let them know it in the most raw and vocal way they know how. This film captures the hard-working, blue collar lifeblood of Philly in the ‘70s. Invincible is a modest movie that certainly has its heart in the right place. Director Ericson Core includes the requisite training montages of Vince running; catching balls, doing various drills and so on. It becomes pretty obvious that Rocky is the template for Invincible: the underdog who succeeds on his own terms and goes the distance. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but this film isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel – just telling an entertaining story.
“Becoming Invincible: The Story of Vince Papale” is a making of featurette that gives a brief historical perspective of the Eagles in the ‘70s while also tracking the development of the film. The real Vermeil and Papale recall what it was like back then as this extra tells the player’s story with a mix of archival footage and clips from the film. There are some great clips of the real Papale in action on the field that makes this featurette very enjoyable and informative.
There is an audio commentary by Vince Papale, producer Mark Ciardi and writer Brad Gann. Papale offers his recollections of the past and tells production anecdotes, like how nervous he was meeting Wahlberg for the first time (he was just as nervous to meet Papale) and praises his portrayal. Gann touches upon the research he did and the story parallels to Rocky. But it is Papale’s natural charm and good humour that comes through the clearest on this track. He spends a lot of time reminiscing about his friends and how they are depicted in the movie. This movie was clearly near and dear to his heart and his passion for the game is very engaging.
Finally, there is an additional commentary by director Ericson Core and editor Jerry Greenberg. Core says that they didn’t have to change much of South Philly to make it look like it did in the ‘70s. Although, they did have to digitally recreate Veteran’s Stadium as it had been demolished a few years ago. This is a more technically oriented track as the director talks about how he shot the film while both men talk about the editing process. While this track covers the nuts and bolts of filmmaking it is done so in an accessible way.