At this point, the Disney underdog sports movie franchise is pretty much an assembly line. From "Miracle" to "The Rookie" to "Remember the Titans" and "Glory Road," there are certain emotional beats, stock characters and soundtrack moments that recur. While not necessarily as good as "Miracle" or "The Rookie," credit Ericson Core's "Invincible" with varying the formula just a bit. While still undoubtedly a "feel good" movie, it's surprisingly dark and miserable road that must be traveled along the way.
Set in Philadelphia in 1976, "Invincible" is the story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), part-time bartender and occasional teacher. It's the worst of times for the lowly Philadelphia Eagles, but Vince and his blue collar pals remain faithful, if abusive fans (are there any other kind in Philly?). The team is a mirror of the city, or at least the part of South Philly where the men play violent games of tackle football on the backlots, go get drunk and then go to work at the factory the next day. Things change when the Eagles hire UCLA's golden boy coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear who, while effective, never sheds a single tear) to lead the team back to respectability and Vermeil decides to hold an open try-out to stir up interest. Goaded by his pals, Vince goes to the try-out and gets the chance to go to training camp. He hasn't played organized football since high school. He's too small. Nobody thinks he can do it, including himself. However, like Seabiscuit, Jim Braddock, the 1980 Olympic hockey team and Rudy, he eventually makes everybody believe.
That sounds fairly conventional, right?
Brad Gann's screenplay begins with the facts from Papale's life, but its focus is less on the jubilant release of athletic success and more on the grinding necessity to succeed if you have absolutely nothing else to live for. As played by Wahlberg, Vince is a morose leading character. Rarely do we see how he's a good enough football player to actually make the Eagles, but we see the things that drive him. He's motivated by his father (Kevin Conway), a man beaten down by grief and failure. He's motivated by his wife (Lola Glaudini), who moves out on him, leaving only a note that predicts he'll never make anything of himself. He's motivated by his friends and their disappointments. The usual formula for a movie of this kind would be to concentrate on how Vince won over his new teammates, how they all bonded and how he turned them into winners. "Invincible" can't be bothered to go that far. All it can do is follow Vince until he feels like he belongs.
It's a strategy that may alienate some viewers. People who hate sports, but tolerate banal movies like "Remember the Titans" find respite in fat offensive lineman singing Motown tunes or precocious children saying supportive things. "Invincible" is two hours of Wahlberg gritting his teeth and furrowing his brow, which I found surprisingly watchable. The only softening of the Papale character comes courtesy of Janet (the radiant Elizabeth Banks), the sexy new bartender in town, who provides both a love interest and comic relief due to her support of the hated Giants.
"Invincible" is Core's first film as a director after a long run as a respected cinematographer. Shooting this film as well, Core does a nice job with the grit and period feel of 1970s Philly, even if some shots -- any time it snows or rains, mostly -- come off as too pretty. The football action is intimate and choreographed with some measure of realism, though the reconstructed Veterans Stadium never looks exactly right and some real Philly faithful are likely to be frustrated by the CG embellishments. At least when the characters drink beer, they down Yuengling.
Personally, I like the idea of a sports movie about a guy who may not have been able to survive without this break, but some audiences will find this film more grim than the way Disney's pushing it.