Pretty much every inspirational sports movie from the past two and a half decades follows the same basic recipe for success. A struggling team of misfits, or sometimes just one underdog, has nowhere to go but up. Then through strenuous training montages and the support of a dedicated coach, the team and/or underdog achieves sweat victory. “When the Game Stands Tall” doesn’t transcend or revolutionize the sports movie formula. It consists of many archetypes and plot points we’ve already seen a million times before. The film does change up the formula in some respects, however, making for a slightly less conventional picture than initially expected.
Inspired by the true story of the De La Salle High School Spartans and Neil Hayes’ book of the same name, “When the Game Stands Tall” begins where most sports movies would have ended. Instead of following this high school football team from the start, the film picks up just as they’ve won 151 games straight. They hold the longest winning streak for any American sport so naturally the team has nowhere to go but down with everything to lose. The Spartans do indeed eventually fumble and lose the first game of the season, bringing their reign of triumph to a close. From here, “When the Game Stands Tall” plays less like an underdog’s road to glory and more like a tale of redemption.
After being tortured and nearly crucified by Mel Gibson, Jim Caviezel is finally starting to make a comeback in the mainstream movie market. He gives one of his best performances as coach Bob Ladouceur, who has been with the Spartans since they won game one of their winning streak. Although he’s under constant pressure and has unbelievable expectations to live up to, he doesn’t care that much about what the folks in the bleachers think about him or even about the streak. All he really cares about is teaching his players what it means to be a team and to grow up. Ladouceur doesn’t deviate much from the familiar motivating coach character who comes complete with all of these sports movies. Nevertheless, Caviezel offers just the right amount grit, sincerity, regret, and restraint to sell this character to us. The same can be said about pretty much all the other actors.
This isn’t a movie full of original characters with Laura Dern as Ladouceur’s supportive wife, Matthew Daddario as Ladouceur’s neglected son, Michael Chiklis as the assistant coach, Alexander Ludwig as a running back trying to please his abusive father, Ser’Darius Blain as a player with an uncertain future, and Stephan James as another player with a tragic fate. None of them make for fantastic characters you remember walking out the theater like in “Friday Night Lights” and “Remember the Titans.” Part of that’s because the screenplay can occasionally feel awkwardly paced, juggling a lot of characters and only giving a handful of them solid character development every fifteen minutes. The actors all make the most of their screen time, however, creating people we can’t help but root for.
The message behind director Thomas Carter’s film is that football isn’t about records and legacies. It’s about how you play the game. Is “When the Game Stands Tall” the greatest game ever played or the greatest sports movie ever made? No, but it is a very well assembled, well shot film with strong performances and a moral it never backs down from, most notably in the inspired climax. If you’ve been officially worn out by the very prospect of another sports movie, this one probably isn’t for you. For all those sports movie junkies out there, though, “When the Game Stands Tall” provides just enough new and old material to keep the fans cheering.
• Ahwatukee native and Arizona State University graduate Nick Spake has been working as a film critic for nine years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com.