Around New Years, I gave my bit on the ten best sports films of the last 20 years. Here are the “Big 4” in my opinion that fumbled it the worst with bad acting, belabored agendas, and unnecessary hype.
1. Ali (2001) - Boxing
Michael Mann’s 3-hour epic about one of the greatest and most charismatic athletes of the 20th Century was an ambitious project and a noble venture, but falls hard. Too bad this film, Ali, was boring and almost as hard to endure as Oprah’s Beloved.
Will Smith displays his best and most studied acting as Muhammad Ali himself, along side other great actors who play titan roles. Jon Voight as sportscaster legend Howard Cosell, and Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X shine, along side other greats like Jeffrey Wright, Jamie Foxx, and comedian Paul Rodriguez as boxing voice Ferdie Pacheco. Still the dramatic potency of the cast is weighed down by the story line’s inertia.
Smith's acting: a knockout. But the storyline has rubber hands.
Perhaps what doomed the film was that the timeline stuck militantly to Ali’s life between 1965 and 1975. Unfortunately, what was shown focused less on boxing and more on personal affairs, as it spent much time on Ali being banned from the sport and scorned by the establishment for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Yet Ali didn’t go the route of The People Versus Larry Flint, focusing on intellectual ventures surrounding the legal fight.
Besides great acting, the only spike is the scene surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle fight between Ali and George Foreman, in Zaire in 1975. Here, Mann does deserve credit for transitioning his underlying assertion –that Ali was a universal and influential American icon—to the build up and anticipation about this legend challenging and beating the new champ Foreman.
I wanted to see this charismatic, inspirational man and prolific athlete fighting titans in the ring, not sparring with sociopolitical causes or partisan apparitions. Shame on me (perhaps) for wanting Ali to be more like Rocky and less like Against All Odds.
2. Friday Night Lights (2004) - Football
To me Friday Night Lights is little more than Melrose Place on a football field. Even worse it reminds me of some of those horrid, catty British shows like Footballers’ Wives. Or maybe the better put, the first time this film came out, it was called Varsity Blues.
Go figure, Billy Bob Thornton is a Texas high school football at Permian High; a school with a huge tradition for football. And like every coach in every film about football, his task is coaching underdogs to the state championship. The herd of boys practice, play, win, then get stalked by media and generally get put on a pedestal as the sole means of inspiration for a small Texas town.
We often overhear the usual, “how big high school football is in Texas”. True, but football is big everywhere in the United States. Why does Texas get special recognition for loving football, I wonder. The accents don't sell me.
Carrying the film’s predictability further, the successful season for coach and the boys leads them to play the top team in the state. Egos inflame and partying leads to some unruly behavior amidst the backdrop of social disparity and minor racial tensions. Fair enough.
But according to this film, high school football players claim instant celebrity status and have the physique of 26 year old men, of course, only in a special place like Texas. Because of football, high school boys become the object of every woman's desire, and deserve special privilege in society. We all knew high school football players. And yet this film doesn't fool us into believing the mythical hyperbole about them.
Sure there’s a place in popular American film for a movie like Friday Night Lights, and an appetite among moviegoers. However, the makers of the film seem to think that slick southern accents and “go get ‘em” speeches stapled to strutting pretty boys is something that is supposed to lift us up for life.
Unfortunately, while the thrill of the football play is there --for die hard football fans-- the whole of Friday Night Lights is a canned stock movie we’ve seen a hundred times before. Maybe the TV show is better. Never mind, it isn't.
3. Vision Quest (1985) -Wrestling
This film, which features Madonna about the time she hit it big, stands as the only major studio work about high school or collegiate style wrestling. The film tells the story of Louden Swain, a high school senior who has been wrestling for barely two years.
Because of his “balance” he’s already a state champion and the best in his weight class. But that’s not enough. The tall and lanky wrestler, played by Matthew Modine, decides that the path to glory is to starve and sweat himself down two weight classes to challenge the unbeatable 3-time state champion, Brian Shute. Shute trains by walking up and down stadium bleachers holding an 18 inch wooden telephone pole.
For Swain, making weight is an arduous process of constant running and frequent nosebleeds. Swain’s sanity is questioned, rightfully, by everyone in his drab suburb of Spokane, WA. Meanwhile his only inspirations come from a feisty 20-something wild flower named Carla, played by Linda Fiorentino, who randomly rolls into town and bunks with Swain and his dad for a while.
1985's mish mash wrestling film, Vision Quest. Awful.
All in all there are a lot of problems with this film. First off, the director has little understanding of wrestling. Matches end for no reason and scoring is inconsistent. In one scene, the home team forfeits the match simply because the away team has taken the lead, meaning the last couple wrestlers forgo their matches. Anyone who knows wrestling remotely knows that this doesn’t happen. Imagine your hometown baseball team is down 10-0 in the 3rd Inning. Even the Cubs would finish that game.
Also, champions in wrestling are never made in a matter of two seasons. Having wrestled myself in Pennsylvania, which is –granted—a very tough wrestling state, most champions I knew started at age 5, not 16. But inaccuracy aside, there’s more.
When not starving himself and risking his health to reach his goal, our “hero” is babbling on about virtues. Yet in one scene he tries to force himself sexually on his house guest/love, Carla, before she punches him in the face (prompting nosebleeds, again), only to have it brushed under the rug when she shows up to cheer him on at a match.
In the end, boy wins girl, boy beats the unbeatable champion, and returns a normal diet. But Vision Quest will leave you and anyone who’s not an anorexic, nerdy, sexually deviant excuse for an athlete wondering what the hell you’ve just watched for two hours. But social issues and my hang-ups aside, Vision Quest is just a bad, bad film.
4. He Got Game (1998) – Basketball
He Got Game, a Spike Lee film featuring NBA star Ray Allen foretold the coming future of a high school phenomenon and basketball virtuoso, so skilled that he was as better than all professional players as an 18 year old. Sort of an accidental story version of the rise of LeBron James, 10 years early, but one with greedy people hanging on everywhere.
Director Lee has done a great job of depicting the experience of urban African-American youths while throwing on the table the valid issues. He’s done this in films such as Malcolm X and Crooklyn to better effect. Typically every Spike Lee joint forces the viewer to have a conversation about racism and opportunity in America, along with both the savory and unsavory sides of success, fame and fortune.
Jake Shuttlesworth, played by Denzel Washington, is a prison inmate who has been incarcerated for killing his wife during an argument. His son, Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by Allen is the heavily recruited basketball prodigy.
Jake can get a pardon if he can only convince his son to play for Big State, the governor's alma mater. Meanwhile, Jesus faces temptation by big money, beautiful women, super agents and money men who want to take him away from the Brooklyn projects but make him sign on the dotted line.
NBA players Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan, make appearances in the film as well as top coaches and spunky broadcaster Dick Vitale. As always, Denzel is impressive and Allen, who is not a professional actor, shows that he could be. If you're a basketball nut, there’s a lot to get excited about here.
Yet too often in this film, the protagonist, Jesus is portrayed as the victim of every single advantage he gets and every good thing he has going for him. Sure, his mother is dead and his dad is in jail…he’s had it rough. And everybody’s trying to sell Jesus out, to get their piece of money, power, and influence for pointing Jesus to this college or that pro team.
But by the time the film reaches it’s conclusion, you realize that the theme is less about basketball in America and less about talent and hard work and prevailing. He Got Game is largely an essay about how athletes, especially the ones who become celebrities and make millions upon millions of dollars, spend their entire life getting victimized and screwed by everybody in the sports business, while being objectified by the fans too.
Not that some pro athletes don’t get screwed, or big money hasn’t tainted sport. These are valid issues. But looking back since in the 12 years since this film came out, many a sports fan would be hard pressed to feel sorry for pro athletes as some sort of repressed, misunderstood group in need of fair play or a more just system of commerce.
He Got Game is not a dud like Vision Quest, but not a slam dunk either.
Writings © 2010. pics courtesy of The Internet Movie Database www.IMDB.com