Sportswriter, fellow pro wrestling fan, & former ESPN talking head Bill Simmons wrote a delightful column last summer about films that may or may not be considered a true sports movie. Some of his conclusions I agree with, others I do not. I march to the beat of my own drummer so I don’t really care about others’ opinions, but Simmons’ basic premise is spot on. There is a lot of crossover when it comes to sports movies, especially with rom-coms.
So what exactly defines a sports movie?? In pondering that question I have come to a few conclusions:
• A sports movie usually features a loveable underdog trying to overcome impossible odds. Sports is all about cheering for one team and/or against another. Fans tend to like sports packaged like old westerns…the good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats. The dividing line between heroes & villains is clear and everyone loves a good David vs. Goliath story.
• A sports movie should concentrate, if not exclusively then atleast mostly, on the sports. We need to see game action, usually involving a climactic contest where our underdog shocks the world with a last second victory. This is where the line gets blurred most often, with more rom-com-ish films focusing heavily on relationships, usually between a star player or coach and a beautiful young lady that is way too good for him. In that type of story sports takes a backseat, which can be problematic in defining it as a sports film.
• Sports movies will oftentimes have two specific characters: an aging veteran who just can’t walk away, and/or a young buck that is talented but has a lot to learn. One or both characters may be present. If both are in the film then the old guy is probably a mentor/guru for the youngster.
• Sports movies almost always have an inspirational speech. This speech theoretically is about sports, but really it is a philosophical & spiritual illumination of life and the universe.
That’s pretty much it. There are other clichés that we could dive into, but I think I’ve covered the biggies.
The process of compiling this list, narrowing things down, & getting the right order was more difficult than expected. There are films that I love from a big picture perspective, but kind of fall short within the specific confines of being a sports movie. There are other films that really aren’t great films, but inside the narrow boundaries of the genre are quite entertaining. As with my 100 Favorite Films I cannot escape the limits of my own life experiences and personal taste. Someone my father’s age or a 20-something like my eldest nephew might have a completely different compilation. So be it. I appreciate quality, but I’m not a movie critic. Just because something is good doesn’t mean I like it, and just because the masses on Rotten Tomatoes may eviscerate a film doesn’t mean I haven’t watched it a hundred times on cold, lonely, dreary Saturday nights. You’ll see a good cross section of sports represented here…football (high school, college, & pro), baseball (Little League, the minor leagues, & MLB), basketball, hockey, horse racing, amateur wrestling, martial arts, golf, auto racing, boxing, and even a certain unusual “sport” that we all played in grade school. There are a few old black & white films from the 30’s as well as stuff from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, & the 21st century. There are comedies, dramas, & biopics. Yet this eclectic mix of movies has one common thread…sports. I love them. You probably love them. And hopefully you’ll enjoy this fun little effort.
Miracle is interesting from this standpoint: how come it took nearly 25 years for a major motion picture to be made about one of the greatest real sports stories of all time?? The film tells the tale of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team that stunned the world by upsetting the Russians and going on to win the gold medal. Kurt Russell carries the movie portraying head coach Herb Brooks, who died in a tragic car accident just before Miracle hit theaters in 2004. I would have liked to have seen a bit more character development to differentiate the players, but Russell is solid as usual and the hockey scenes are compelling. This is a story that needed to be told, and I suppose it is done about as well as possible.
24 Everybody’s All-American
Everybody’s All-American is based on a novel that I’ve never read but is on my bookshelf so I’ll get around to it eventually. It’s a really good story that explores what happens to a big man on campus whose pro football career isn’t nearly as glamorous as his collegiate glory days, and chronicles the challenges he faces when even that pro career begins to fade. Dennis Quaid is a grossly underrated actor and I’m a sucker for tales set in a different era (this one takes place in the 1950’s). Everybody’s All-American kind of gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. It was in theaters in 1988, with stiff competition from Big, Rain Man, Coming to America, Cocktail, The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda, Beetlejuice, Bull Durham, Die Hard, & Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If you’ve never seen it check it out on Netflix. You won’t regret it.
23 North Dallas Forty / Any Given Sunday
Films about professional football seem hellbent & determined to focus on the sport’s seedy underbelly…violence, drugs, sex, partying. While baseball is often romanticized in cinema football is shown no mercy. North Dallas Forty is a 1979 movie (also based on a book I’ve not read but would like to) starring Nick Nolte and country singer turned actor Mac Davis. They play for a fictionalized facsimile of the Dallas Cowboys. True story: I watched this movie on our illegal HBO when I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I lied to my mother and told her it was rated PG. When she found out that it was rated R and that I had lied to her she grounded me for about a month. Any Given Sunday is an updated version of “look how vicious football is and what jerks these guys are” theme, but it stars Al Pacino as the head coach and Pacino makes anything awesome. The aforementioned Dennis Quaid is along for the ride as an aging QB who loses his starting job to a young & cocky Jamie Foxx. Oliver Stone directed and I’ve never been a big fan of Stone’s style, so this isn’t really a film I’ve watched as much as others you’ll see here.
22 A League of Their Own / The Bad News Bears
There really was an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that existed for about a decade during and after World War II. There were 15 teams, mostly located in the Midwest (Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota). The league was created by Phillip Wrigley, the heir to his father’s chewing gum empire. A League of Their Own is a dramedy centering on the four time league champion Rockford Peaches. The only negative issue with the film is the questionable casting of Madonna and the repugnant Rosie O’Donnell, but fortunately it is saved by outstanding performances by Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Garry Marshall, and especially Tom Hanks in a rare supporting role. I like movies based on true stories and this one works really well. The Bad News Bears is such an iconic movie that the premise has passed into the general lexicon as a way of describing a ragtag bunch of irreverent screw-ups. The reference is a bit dated now, and I bet there are people who use it that have never even seen the original film made in 1975. There was a remake in 2005, but this is just one of those stories that shouldn’t be redone. Honestly, how could anyone really replace the late Walter Matthau (except for Jack Klugman in The Odd Couple…but Klugman is dead too)??
21 Vision Quest
Vision Quest is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of high school wrestling. It was released in 1985, the same year as more beloved classics like Back to the Future, Fletch, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Teen Wolf, Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Cocoon, & St. Elmo’s Fire…so it is easy to understand why it is largely forgotten. However, it really works as a sports film, especially if you have had any exposure to amateur wrestling. Both of my nephews wrestled from the time they were 4 years old thru high school, and the youngest won a state title during his junior season a few months ago. If you aren’t a fan of the sport you may not like Vision Quest as much, but with a solid cast, fantastic soundtrack, & a good story it’s well worth the time.
That’s all you get for now. Join us again soon for Part 2!!