"A Cinderella Story That Doesn't Tell The Whole Story"
Before Rocky Balboa was getting his shot on the big screen in 1976, there was a real-life Philadelphian about to be handed a golden chance in sports. The Philadelphia Eagles coming off a miserable season (three or four wins – depending on who you believe in the movie) and coach Dick Vermeil, fresh from a Rose Bowl win at UCLA took over the team and held open tryouts in the hopes of sparking some enthusiasm back to the city. The rabid Eagles fans were liable to show up anyway. After all, they are infamously known for snowballing Santa Claus at Veteran’s stadium. Actual snowballs; not the Kevin Smith thing. But it was one fan with some actual speed and talent who would make the most of this opportunity. Too bad the film couldn’t make the most of him.Mark Wahlberg stars as Vince Papale, a part-time summer school teacher and bartender who is told in a note (the only thing left by his wife) that he’s “not going anywhere” and will never “make a name for himself.” Coaxed on by his blue collar friends (Kirk Acevedo and Michael Rispoli), Vince literally has nothing left to lose and goes to tryout where he catches the eye of Vermeil (Greg Kinnear). The laughable gaggle of wannabes make his chiseled guns and under 5-second running time the only thing worth looking at anyway.
What follows is the grueling training camp where each week brings another round of cuts. The veterans have no respect for him and apparently neither does Johnny (Dov Davidoff), Vince’s unemployed bar buddy who discourages him in every scene and ranks somewhere amidst Eric Cartman and Boogie Nights’ Todd as the worst on-screen friends of all time. But dad (Kevin Conway) is proud of him and even Rispoli’s cousin, Janet (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful Giants fan gives Vince a ray of sunshine at the bar even while she ducks all attempts at an official date.
Everyone loves a good underdog story cause they are a rare occurrence in our daily lives. But in the movies, they are a dime-a-dozen and the truth is that filmmakers may be running out of them quicker than Disney is with different sports to make movies out of. Are you anticipating that underdog LaCrosse movie from Duke University? Papale’s story is a nice one to tell. I just wish director Ericson Core and screenwriter Brad Gann had told a version more substantial than the one overheard at Philadelphia watering holes. The opening credits let us know that events depicted are “based on the life of Vince Papale.” So would it have hurt to give us a little more of his actual life than just the couple months we wade through? An entire biopic likely wouldn’t have been as interesting but some more background would have been welcome. Did Vince ever have NFL aspirations as a kid? Exactly how passionate an Eagles fan is he? And just how big a loser is that Johnny guy?
After seeing game film of the actual Papale before the end credits it hit me that it may have been wiser to switch approaches for this story and focus back on his friends in the neighborhood. The underlying grasp of the strike-hindered buds to Papale’s attempt at greatness really serves the true inspiration of how true friends can vicariously improve their own lives through a rooting interest in their favorite team or their best friend trying to play for that team. Coupled with the motivation of sleepwalking that Wahlberg uses to play Papale, his friends look more alive than the one supposedly living the dream. It also would have been nice to get some more alone time with Vermeil. For someone who famously broke down winning the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams (after taking a chance on a Canadian Leaguer named Kurt Warner) we get little of the passion that made him such a good coach and little more than some perceived “heart” he sees from Papale.Invincible ends on the kind of Rudy-esque note it needs since the Eagles still sucked that season. 4 and 10 to be precise for those wanting to throw batteries at me. The film even visually suggests that Vermeil won Super Bowl XV for the Eagles in 1980 when they actually lost to the Oakland Raiders. So there’s more than a little whitewashing going on – with no mention whatsoever that Papale did play for Philly’s World Football League which led to him meeting Vermeil. They might as well have gone for the Hail Mary then and accentuate the relationship between the two as outsiders the team didn’t really want; the city embracing one and shunning the other after meaningless preseason games instead of including the longest running montage since Forrest Gump. Invincible should play well enough for Eagles fans, even those who don’t know the story but will ultimately be little more than another human interest story we hear during the end of a daily newscast for everyone else. A nice story, but on to the next one.