In many ways, the true-life football fantasy Invincible is this summer's equivalent to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but with football training camp hell instead of a magical chocolate factory tour. Both movies are rated a family-friendly PG, both feature quiet, shy heroes plucked from incredibly drab working-class backgrounds and both feature wall-to-wall music scores (although the Oompah Loompas in Tim Burton's film weren't as fond of '70s classic rock as the dudes in Invincible).
Invincible is cut from the same cloth as two other recent Disney hits, The Rookie and Miracle, and it follows their formula to a T. Take a triumph-over-adversity story line, cast a gruff, capable actor in the lead role, add some convincing details on the field (or rink) and you've got something for the entire family or at least, something dads can use to hype up their 10-year-old sons during the offseason. Luckily, underdog sports fantasies really only need one or two killer action scenes to succeed, and Invincible gets its moments of glory on the gridiron triumphantly right, even if the rest of the movie is too dramatically thin and anticlimactic to make any lasting impact.
Set in a grungy Philadelphia neighborhood in the mid-'70s, the film takes more than a few liberties as it tells the true story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a jocky 30-year-old bartender and teacher who's just been dumped by his wife. When the city's slumping Eagles announce they'll be holding open tryouts, his friends and father pester him to go, even if Vince has little experience playing anything other than high school ball. (The real Vince played minor-league football and was invited to try out.)
The open auditions are orchestrated by the team's passionate new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), as a way to both rally the city's support of the team and inject new life into his complacent players. Out of all the wheezing wannabes on the field that day, the humble Vince is offered the chance to go to camp and possibly even make the starting lineup. Of course, that will mean practicing alongside salaried Eagles who want nothing more than to crush Vince before he can snag one of their spots on the team.
This is one sports movie that's not about a ragtag team that needs to unite in order to win the big championship; as framed by director Ericson Core, it's the story of two men Vince and Dick who've "got the heart" to rise above all the other schlubs around them. There's a long, slow, reverent buildup to the Big Day in the NFL, and Core uses this time to establish Vince's strained relationships with his unemployed, beer-swilling, girl-ogling buddies back home. They're like characters from a Billy Joel song; everyone in the film seems to have had their rough edges sanded off.
Wahlberg was born to play average, working-class guys with chips on their shoulders, and his Invincible role is no exception. But his character needs more quirks or any, for that matter if we're really going to root for him. The same goes for Vermeil, a football legend whose intensity isn't communicated by the affable, competent Kinnear.
Despite these flaws, Core a former cinematographer knows how to rally the audience. When Vince anxiously prepares for his first game, the handheld camera puts you right in the center of the locker room: You hear the players' psyching themselves up, mumbling, running in place, praying. As they take the field, the scene explodes into a riot of bright light, color and deafening crowd noise. In fact, the best scenes in Invincible are almost too good: All the hand-wringing drama that surrounds them pales in comparison.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].