Film Review – When The Game Stands Tall
When The Game Stands Tall
When The Game Stands Tall (2014) makes the error of constantly reminding us it’s a sports film. That’s not to say sports films are bad in general, but the really good ones transcends whatever game is being played to make it more about the characters, or works as an allegory for society. This does neither of those things. Instead, it settles for cheap and clichéd tropes inherent in the genre. Do you want teammates that come from different ends of the economic ladder joining together in a merry band of brotherhood? You got it. Do you want speeches that press the fact these kids aren’t just playing football, but are making choices that will affect them as adults? You’ll get plenty of those. The cheese factor is so over the top you may start to wonder if this is a parody of the genre instead of a sincere effort.
What makes sports films so great is how they depict the story of the underdog: the people others have counted out but overcame the odds to attain their own personal victory. Rocky just wanted to go the distance against Apollo Creed, Rudy just wanted to get on the field, and Danny Larusso just didn’t want to be picked on anymore. The difference here is that the team – the De La Salle High School Spartans – are far from being underdogs. Under the tutelage of coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), the school’s football team rode a 151 game winning streak and 12 state championships. They were undefeated for over a decade, with “The Streak” being touted as a point of pride. Well, it’s hard to root for a team if they’re already perfect to begin with. No one is really going to shed a tear if they lose one measly game.
But as the story so graciously tells us (over and over again), being a winner is not about The Streak, but how they conduct themselves as people. Scott Marshall Smith (screenplay) and Thomas Carter (director) flood the narrative with monologues that hammer the same thing constantly: the Spartans are a family, and they stick together through thick and thin. Even when tragedy strikes, they each have the other’s back. These are not characters – they are archetypes. There’s the young prodigy (Alexander Ludwig) who is pressured by his father to be a star, the cocky playmaker (Jessie Usher) whose only concern is himself, and the undersized kid (Matthew Frias) who doesn’t have the physique but has all the guts. They are all sports film stereotypes bunched into one. Even Jim Caviezel plays his role with little uniqueness. I’m not sure if this was his choice or if he was directed to do so, but Caviezel’s monotone performance barely registers. He’s the same tough but compassionate coach we’ve seen a dozen times before in a dozen other movies.
Sadly, the most interesting characters disappear after the first act. T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) and Cam Colvin (Ser’Darius Blain) feel the most like real, flesh and blood people. They are both graduating seniors. T.K. is a gifted athlete, with an offer from Oregon that is too good to pass up. Cam is also a strong football player, but needs to make money right away to support his younger brother. T.K. and Cam grew up with dreams of playing together, but the realities of life may force them to change their plans. The dynamic between James and Blain feels authentic, and both performers make the most of their limited screen time, winning us over with relative ease. Sadly, the focus quickly moves away from them to others who do not share the same kind of screen presence.
The cinematography is unremarkable. This is an issue, as sports films rely heavily on visual aesthetics. Lots of quick cutting and shaky camera movement hinder our ability to see plays unfold. Slow motion is used repeatedly during hits and tackles, taking away our sense of how physical the game actually is. And when we move away from the field, the structure of dialogue scenes is handled awkwardly. When coach Ladouceur gives an emotional speech to lift his players during a tough game, he’s lit from the back in a golden light. Combined with the swelling music, the speech comes off as preachy and manipulative rather than inspiring.
When The Game Stands Tall is based on a true story, and at the end we get the obligatory montage featuring the real life characters portrayed (including Bob Ladouceur). I have no doubt the filmmakers had good intentions when making this movie, and the story of The Streak is undoubtedly a fascinating one. But the finished product did not do enough to make me forget this is another typical sports film. It felt generic, recycled, and forgettable. I had little investment in a team that learned how to do what they’ve already been doing for over ten years.