Jim Caviezel plays high school football coach Bob Ladouceur during the season that changed everything. As coach of the Spartans Football Team, Bob always tells his players that winning doesn't matter. Yet somehow, with the aid of assistant coach Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis), he's led the team to a record-breaking 151 straight victories. When his wife Bev (Laura Dern) urges him to refocus on his family, Bob is blinded by the pressure to keep the streak alive. Now, in the midst of a season of crisis and tragedy when the Spartans stand to lose everything, a remarkable young player (Alexander Ludwig) helps Bob rediscover that teamwork outshines professional glory 'When the Game Stands Tall'.
In the pantheon of sports movies, the best tales of true triumphs are only as strong as their assembly. When the Game Stands Tall is a prime example of a story with base materials. It becomes so wrapped up in the details of the unbeatable high school football team that it seems to forget about real characters or drama. Maybe there was something more to these events that could’ve made for an engaging sports movie, but it’s far from such greatness with this dry and melodramatic treatment that reeks of a quickly produced TV special.
Remember how mesmerizing it was to watch Kurt Russell play Herb Brooks (Miracle) or Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gaines (Friday Night Lights)? You just don’t feel that same level of eye-catching charisma with Jim Caviezel in the role of Coach Bob Ladouceur. He seems to be severely lacking in any real pep or passion for coaching the De La Salle Spartans to a 151-game winning streak. Perhaps there was a deeper revelation to him being so humble in the face of greatness, but it’s mostly overshadowed by him going through the motions of any movie football coach. He offers some simple words of wisdom, quotes the Bible and attempts to band his team together as one. Putting players above trophies, he’s a squeaky clean role model that advocates for better sportsmanship.
Even after suffering a heart attack and having the team lose two games does not deter him. I doubt the losses would deter any coach with such a record under their belt and a clean moral slate to show for it. But Bob still pushes on to make his team win again and recover quickly. In perspective, it doesn’t exactly seem like a rise of triumph but more a modification of already attained glory. To keep things interesting, there are the usual rattlings of the cage for conflict in these pictures. Bob’s wife (Laura Dern) continues to point out how the job of coaching is taking away from his home life. An unfortunate black student with a bright future has his life cut short by street violence. An aggressive father pushes his player son too hard to achieve a new record.
These are all a-typical subplots for a football drama and they’re acceptable if they carry a certain amount of personality and emotion punch. The A game was not brought to this picture as we spend so much time darting from plot point to plot point to neither enjoy or appreciate any of these characters beyond the expected. I’m not beyond a classic football speech or troubled students, but this film simply doesn’t feel the need to elevate past melodrama. There were plenty of angles to explore from the Christian mentality to racial issues, but they’re merely treated as light ingredients for the hype of the big game which closes the film.
I can’t help but feel that director Thomas Carter was more focused on the football aspect than the human story. Many of the game scenes are well-shot if not a little overproduced to increase the excitement. Bodies slam into each other with loud crunching and thuds. The camera maneuvers into many different angles to capture the experience from simple close-ups to large overhead views of the field. Despite the quick cutting in some spots, the football action is kept surprisingly coherent with a progressive pace. The only element that ruins these scenes is the cliche swelling of the soundtrack and dropping of the sound effects. Editing such as this seems out of place and better suited for the small screen than a theatrical production. I just wish the director had more faith in these scenes to let them play out more naturally rather than slather them in cheap attempts at garnering some tense tears.
When the Game Stands Tall is so blandly crafted in the discount sports movie formula it becomes more of a vehicle and less of a story. Perhaps it’s a lackluster script or faulty direction, but there just doesn’t seem to be much of a human aspect to this picture. Even worse, the film has a brief moment that teases the greatness this movie could have achieved. The team at one point visits a veteran hospital to have some comical and inspiring interactions. It’s that fleeting moment where you start to like these kids and want to see them succeed. If only there were some more chemistry and fireworks that weren’t so artificial, I would actually care more about them winning the climactic game and the touching conclusion. Instead, the movie merely fumbles with trying to craft a by-the-numbers story around a unique bit of sports fame.
You rated this film: 2
Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Parental Guidance - general viewing but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children