A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG, 105 mins.
Mark Wahlberg: Vince Papale / Greg Kinnear: Dick Vermeil / Elizabeth Banks: Janet / Kevin Conway: Frank Papale / Michael Rispoli: Max / Jack Kehler: Wade Chambers
Directed by Ericson Cole / Written by Brad Gaan
If you thought that Philadelphia was home to only one underdog athlete that rose from obscurity and took a chance at a million to one shot, then you obviously have not heard of Vince Papale. His similarities to a particular Italian Stallion are striking.
Both live in the city of Brotherly Love. Both occupy the lower end of the societal totem pole (perhaps, in Papale’s case, he lives a bit more of a cozier, lower class lifestyle than Mr. Balboa). Both have a passion for their respective sports, so much so that their heart and individual drive oftentimes overshadows their relative lack of depth and skill. Perhaps most importantly, both men were at their absolute rock bottom when they were given a chance to fulfill a lifelong dream.
The real life Papale had an obsession with his hometown Philadelphia Eagles, and with the sport of football as a whole. Having played only one year of high school football and not a single day of College ball, Papale seemed like the least likely candidate to have any amount of success as a professional football player. By the time he was thirty years old in the mid-1970’s he was living in South Philadelphia and was barely making end’s meat as a substitute high school teacher by day and a bartender at night.
Things changed miraculously for him in 1975. After taking a chance at an open tryout for the Eagles under the then new head coach, Dick Vermeil, Papale was able to see his dreams materialize when the coach placed him as a wide receiver on the team. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, Papale looked the part, but at 30, he became the oldest rookie in NFL history, not to mention the oldest to play for a team without the benefit of any college experience. He would go on to a three-year stint with the franchise and played 41 of 44 regular season games from 1976 to 1978. In 1979 a shoulder injury ended his career and he worked as a radio broadcaster for eight years until he became a commercial mortgage banker.
Papale earned the nickname of “Rocky” by his team-mates while playing for the Eagles, and it's no wonder that his story was the inspiration behind the largely fictional Walt Disney biopic, INVINCIBLE. It could have easily had the working title ROCKY WITH A PIGSKIN during its production. I guess it’s also not surprising that Disney made the film, seeing as they have recently carved a small niche for themselves as the studio that releases a lot of family friendly, audience pleasing, and uplifting underdog sports pictures. I will made no bones about it, the genre of the down-on-his luck little guy that rises out of the ashes of his insignificance and overcomes all odds to become a success is one that I don’t hold in the highest regard. Honestly, have they not told this same story countless times before, like in REMEMBER THE TITANS, THE ROOKIE, MIRACLE, and – yes – in the original ROCKY?
Contrived, rudimentary, and formulaic are all apt descriptors while describing INVINCIBLE. Calling the film predictable would be somewhat redundant. I have seen the type of film INVINCIBLE wants to be so many times in the past that I initially developed ambivalence about the material from the get go. It certainly has all the prerequisite ingredients that has made these films a relative dime a dozen these days. Add one world weary underdog; throw in a ragtag group of friends and family that support him at every turn; a plucky and gorgeous babe that gets involved with the underdog and instills in him confidence and self respect; a resourceful and daring coach/mentor figure that sees potential in the underdog when no one else will; and finally team-mates that initially hate the young hotshot but grow to respect and admire him for his penchant for having P.I.G. – perseverance, integrity, and guts. Put all of these elements into a saucepan and add a pinch of squeaky clean sentimentality and a heaping tablespoon of hero worship, cook on high for 105 minutes, and you’ve got yourself a saccharine, PG rated feel good sports picture that only Disney can make.
At the risk of being even more sarcastic, I will say that – on its levels – INVINCIBLE never goes against the grain. It facilitates the meager demands of this genre and does not deviate from them. The film is yet another sanitized and ooey, gooey uplifting fable of a man realizing his aspirations. There is nothing hard-edged or invigorating about this material. However, the more I watched INVINCIBLE the more engaged I became in the Papale character and his relationship with the Eagles coach. There is a respectable level of chemistry between them both (played by Mark Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear respectively) and their interplay is well handled. Not only that, but the film has terrifically realized period design, to which South Philly of the mid-70's has a decent aura of authenticity. On a character front and on the level of creating a fairly realistic backdrop that maintains a semblance of verisimilitude, INVINCIBLE is intermittently enthralling and entertaining, in non-demanding ways.
Our resonance with this material is dependant on our liking of the main character, and Wahlberg crafts a fairly empathetic character in Papale. He seems to be right at home in terms of playing characters in the 70’s (he was wonderful in 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS - one of the best films of that decade - which chronicled the rise and fall of a porn actor during the heyday of adult cinema). In INVINCIBLE Wahlberg displays a sort of neighborhood, everyman charm and underplayed charisma that hits most of the right beats. There is an earnest level of eagerness to his performance that allows for our emotional buy-in that much more. With his soft-spoken and carefree disposition, Wahlberg easily makes Papale a working class figure that commands respect. He delicately balances vulnerability and a macho determination. For what it’s worth, the film works mostly because of his performance.
INVINCIBLE also benefits from another fine performance by one of our most underrated actors, Greg Kinnear. Honestly, Vermeil could have been played as a standard, SOB coach, but what Kinnear does here is kind of subtle. He’s not a rough n’ tough motivator that has all of the right answers, nor is he confident in all of his decisions. He’s a man that stands by maintaining his character first and foremost, even in the midst of an unruly and unforgiving Philly-fanbase that wants to crucify him for every bad decision he makes. There’s a nice little moment in the film where we hear someone vomit in a bathroom stall. Papale comes out of one, but we still hear puking. Then out comes Vermiel, who too has pre-game apprehension. The dynamic here is kind of interesting; an underdog sports picture where the coach is just as much of a concerned underdog as his protégé.
INVINCIBLE has a very assured man behind the camera in terms of realizing Philadelphia of the 1970’s. Ericson Cole does a great job of transporting the viewer to the desolate streets the city during a time of worker’s strife. Cole films many scenes with a sepia-toned wash that reinforces Papale’s early disillusionment. He also is resourceful with the camera, as with one virtuoso establishing shot of Veteran’s Stadium (recreated with CGI augmentation of Franklin Field; Veteran Stadium was destroyed in 2004) that pans across the snow covered parking lots and then over into the field itself, all in one smooth shot. Core has a good eye for detail, and making a film in this decade is a challenge. Go too far stylistically and the 70’s can look unintentionally goofy and silly. With the proper aesthetic restraint – as used here – the period can look real without being a distraction to the overall story. The football montages as well are also well handled and get the overall cadence of the game right, although Core makes use of slow motion far too much in key moments.
Aside from its look and performances, there is not much to INVINCIBLE that is all that compelling. Papale’s buddies are your usual assortment of supportive pals, and his father is right out of the cliché factory (at first, he has his doubts about his son’s chances, then he grows to respect and love him even more). Also thrown into the mix is a remarkably routine love interest in the form of Janet, who is played by the absolutely luminous Elizabeth Banks, whose smile alone could convince an out-of-shape sloth like yours truly to try out for an NFL franchise. Banks is a decent actress who has some admirable range (her part here is a far cry from her sexaholic bookstore vixen in THE 40 YEAR-OLD-VIRGIN), but her role in INVINCIBLE has too many familiar vibes to be considered compelling. I am sure that the real life courtship of Janet and Vince did not happen so smoothly as portrayed in the film.
INVINCIBLE is also a film that suffers from a horribly mishandled ending. Just when we get into the more exciting segment of Papale’s rise in the NFL, we abruptly get title cards that details the rest of his brief NFL career with the Eagles and where he ended up in the present day. At barely 105 minutes, INVINCIBLE could have easily benefited from a more thorough examination of Papale’s career in football. The way the film sets up and then sidesteps his story for a quick conclusion is kind of a cheat. Imagine watching ROCKY where he knocks down Apollo Creed in the first round of their fight and then the screen goes to a title card to give us the details of the rest of their match and you sort of get the idea.
Nevertheless, I am giving INVINCIBLE a marginal recommendation despite its obvious faults. This real-life inspired sports picture that details a lower class stiff materialize into a professional football hero has seen its themes permeate other better films (like 2005’s CINDERELLA MAN, to name one). INVINCIBLE is as generic as any other stand up and cheer sports film that you’ve probably seen. Let’s face it, the formula here is growing stale and lethargic and has been worn out so thin that why any studio would want to tackle it again is kind of stupefying. Yet, INVINCIBLE has a few very decent, low-key performances, a good eye period detail, and has a certain respectable professional polish. The film has a particular authenticity to its two main characters and its look. It does not do very much to improve upon a labored film genre, but the sum of its good parts overshadows its few poor ones. As a disposable, but entertaining, Disney sports film, INVINCIBLE fumbles at times under the weight of its own redundancy, but it still manages to make it across the goal line.