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Invincible (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, along with Mark Ellis, who cast all the athletes, who all worked on one of last year’s best films, “Miracle,” have combined on this story, based on weekend warrior Vince Papale’s attending a tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. It seemed ludicrous that someone like the 30-year-old Papale, who never played football in college, could make an NFL team, but that’s what happened.

The people who make us believe this story are Mark Wahlberg, who plays Papale, and Greg Kinnear, who plays rookie Eagle coach Dick Vermeil. Some Los Angeles sports fans might remember Vermeil as the blubbering coach who led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory over highly-favored Ohio State, but dyed-in-the-wool fans will also remember him from the audio clip the late legendary sportscaster Jim Healey used to play over and over and over, of the emotional Vermeil, leaving the Eagles, sobbing, “I love those guys.” Healey fans will also get a glimpse of troubled Eagle owner Leonard Tose, and remember that Tose was also highlighted on Healey’s show with a clip of someone saying, “Leonard Tose has, uh, lost it.” Tose (Michael Nouri) gets a pass in this film, however, as he is just a well-dressed owner who makes a couple of short appearances.

This is such a realistic film that I was completely captivated by it. Wahlberg and Kinnear give Oscar-worthy performances under cinematographer and first time director Ericson Core’s masterful hand. Wahlberg is perfectly understated as a weekend jock who gets his chance at the big time and takes it in stride. His personality as the relatively phlegmatic athlete with confidence in his ability reminded me of Robert Redford’s portrayal of a world-class skier in “Downhill Racer” (1969). Just as Redford captured the personality of his skier as good as any portrayal of an athlete I’ve ever seen on film, Wahlberg is dead on. It’s uplifting to see this type of portrayal of an athlete when Hollywood’s legacy is more along the bumbling lines of teeny William Bendix trying to look like Babe Ruth (“The Babe Ruth Story” 1948). Kinnear is so much like Vermeil that he could pass as his brother, although the film plays down Vermeil’s well-known emotionalism.

Shot mostly on location in Philly, the film captures the gritty life of lower-middle class white guys who love the Eagles, love football, but struggle to make a living. Hanging out at the local bar, where Vince works as a part time bartender, these guys are like real people, unlike the jerks in the beer commercials. I thought the pickup football games in which they played were overdone in their violence, however. I’ve played pickup football, but it was never anything like what we’re shown in this film.

Expertly capturing the muted animosity directed at Papale by the other players during training, this is mostly a training camp film. It is far superior to the other one that I remember, “Paper Lion” (1968) in which Alan Alda played George Plimpton who went through training with the Detroit Lions and wrote a book about it. Alda was a less than convincing athlete, but, then, to give him credit, he was playing Plimpton, who was a writer, not an athlete. Wahlberg, on the other hand, looks like the real thing.

Just because I loved the film, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come in for some criticism. The opening of the film is the last home game of the 1975 season with the Eagles losing 31-0 to Cincinnati. We see the game end, but Veteran’s Stadium in Philly is still packed with fans. Trust me, if it’s the last home game of a dismal, losing season and the home team is getting bageled 31-0, not only would the stands not be full at the end of the game, there wouldn’t be 5% still there. (Actually, the 1975 Eagles played two more games, both on the road, winning the last one, 26-3, over the Washington Redskins, but that’s thematically awkward and basically irrelevant).

The film is “based on” Papale’s story. As with the opening of the film, the filmmakers took a lot of leeway with the facts in order to make it more palatably Hollywood. In fact, Papale played three years on special teams and as a wide receiver. He caught one pass for a 15 yard gain and scored no touchdowns.

Despite these minor criticisms, this is a film that is full of highlights, one of which is Vince’s female interest, Janet, played by Elizabeth Banks. Banks is a good actress. She played the lead in one of last year’s best films, “Heights.” But it’s not her acting that captivated me; it’s her beauty. I didn’t think even God could make a woman as beautiful as Banks. Why this gorgeous woman who can act is not already a superstar is a puzzlement. Could she be too beautiful for her own good?

This is an upbeat, feel-good movie, based on fact. When the season ends everyone’s happy due to its Hollywood ending, straight out of Irving Thalberg’s playbook. What they don’t tell you is that the Eagles only won 4 games that year, losing 10 (the same record they had the previous year before Vermeil and Papale joined the club). They didn’t actually get into the playoffs for two more years. Vermeil finally got them to the Super Bowl in 1980. Leonard Tose was, uh, patient.

August 23, 2006