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Inspirational sports movies always have audience appeal, but it’s hard to imagine a huge crowd turning out for the latest feel-good football drama, When the Game Stands Tall. This paint-by-numbers tale of a winning high school football team in northern California probably hopes to attract the back-to-school audience. But it’s too blandly acted and directed to make much of an impact.
An earlier football movie this year, the Kevin Costner–Ivan Reitman collaboration Draft Day, was somewhat underrated and also underperformed at the box office. This new picture has more gridiron action to please fans, but the script by Scott Marshall Smith is far more formulaic. Smith recounts the true story of the De La Salle Spartans, a team that had broken records by winning 151 consecutive games by the end of its 2003 season. But the story begins when some setbacks threaten their 2004 season. First, team coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) suffers a heart attack. Then an African-American team member (Stephan James) is murdered in a ruckus before he is about to head off to college. Reeling from these setbacks, the team loses its first two games of the new season before their spirit of brotherhood gets them back on track.
The big problem with the film is that it’s short of drama off the football field. Coach Ladouceur makes a thorough recovery that allows him to resume his coaching duties fairly soon. There are a few conflicts among the teammates, but these are all fairly mild. The team quarterback (The Hunger Games‘ Alexander Ludwig) faces pressure from an overbearing father (Clancy Brown), but that’s about the only bit of drama that ratchets up the film’s tepid energy level.
Characterizations are also very thin. It’s always good to see Laura Dern, but she is wasted in the role of Ladouceur’s wife, who pushes him to take a college coaching job, but otherwise remains on the sidelines. The team members are fairly indistinguishable, sketched with broad brushstrokes that prevent any of them from emerging as memorable individuals.
The film may hope to seduce the growing audience for faith-based films. The picture skims over the fact that De La Salle is a Catholic high school, but it does include scenes in which Ladouceur teaches religion classes and tries to use lessons from the gospels to inspire his students and team players. Yet this element is fairly understated.
Director Thomas Carter (who made another inspirational sports movie, the more vigorous Coach Carter, several years ago) finally picks up the pace during an extended football game where the Spartans try to return to form by taking on a top Long Beach team consisting of a group of giant bruisers. This game is well filmed and edited, as is the season’s climactic match. Sports fans will enjoy the action in these two sequences, but there’s little to sustain interest through the rest of the excessive running time.
Caviezel hasn’t had a major screen role since he starred in Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ a decade ago. He’s been busy on the CBS-TV series, Person of Interest, but in this big-screen outing he seems to be going through the motions without a lot of flair. Michael Chiklis does a solid job as Ladouceur’s assistant coach. The young actors who play the team members are appealing, but no one really jumps out. As the competitive father, Brown gives probably the most compelling performance in a role that’s a variation on the part played by the late Vic Morrow in The Bad News Bears. Technical credits are all competent, but this earnest picture never really manages to get our adrenaline racing.
Production: Mandalay, Affirm Films.
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis, Clancy Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Matthew Daddario, Stephan James, Joe Massingill, Jessie T. Usher.
Director: Thomas Carter.
Screenwriter: Scott Marshall Smith.
Story by: Scott Marshall Smith, David Zelon.
Based on the book by: Neil Hayes.
Producer: David Zelon.
Executive producers: Cathy Schulman, David Tice, Thomas Carter.
Director of photography: Michael Lohmann.
Production designer: Jaymes Hinkle.
Costume designer: Claire Breaux.
Editor: Scott Richter.
Music: John Paesano.
Rated PG, 115 minutes.
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