Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Invincible (review)

Tough guys don’t dance, or, much less, cry.

But it’s possible that football fans of a certain age or emotional disposition just might be inspired to do one or both after watching Invincible. It’s based on the story of a flesh-and-blood Average Joe who was 30, with only one year of high-school football experience to his credit, when he went from underemployed bartender to NFL stand-out in no time flat.

Invincible, helmed by rookie feature-film director Ericson Core, cinematographer for Daredevil and The Fast and the Furious, is the kind of fast-paced, heartwarming movie for which this blurb-worthy quote was born: It’s the feelgood movie of the year.

The comic-spiked drama, based on the story of Philadelphia Eagles receiver and special teams player Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), is a little bit The Rookie, blended with Rudy and Rocky and mixed with Rock Star, also starring former rapper Marky Mark. It’s a true-life fairy tale about a hardcore fan turned player, a real fantasy.

Core, working from a screenplay by newcomer Brad Gann, admirably sets the stage. It’s Philadelphia, circa December 1975, and substitute teacher Papale and his buddies endure icy temperatures and falling snow at Veterans Stadium as they faithfully root for their battered but beloved Eagles. The director, doubling as director of cinematography, offers a color palette that’s suitably dark – blues, browns, blacks – to match the malaise of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam times.

Cut to the summer of ’76, in the downbeat blue-collar neighborhoods of economically depressed South Philly. There, the same youngish men play aggressive tackle football at night in an arena of their own making. Their cars’ headlights serve as klieg lights, and a hole in the fence, ringed with hub caps, is the equivalent of the stadium tunnel. BTO’s guitar-rock anthem “Let It Ride” blasts on the soundtrack.

Fun is fun, but for most of the guys there’s no work to be had; for pain relief, they congregate at the neighborhood bar. Bad turns to worse for Papale. He loses his teaching job and his wife asks, “When are things going to get better?” The next day, she leaves for good. Cue Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.”

Yes, Core does have an annoying habit of using rock songs as emotional shortcuts. And, like most film biographies, events are wrapped up a little too neatly: Seemingly over the same few days, Papale’s marriage crashes and burns (the truth about his first marriage is quite different than the screen version), he meets a fresh-faced love interest Janet (Elizabeth Banks), he goes to open tryouts for the Eagles and he takes steps to heal an apparently rocky relationship with his gruff father (Kevin Conway).

Still, it would be hard to go wrong with a story arc like the one in Invincible, and Core stays in the game, effectively alternating scenes centered on Papale, new Eagles coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, solid as usual) and the other players with sequences featuring Papale’s pals, his pop and his new girl.

Wahlberg gives a centered, un-showy, quietly compelling performance that suggests his best is yet to come. And the film is capped with footage of the real-life Papale, who played three seasons for the Eagles and was instrumental in the team’s comeback. Nice touch.

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