The routine genre of inspirational sports movies becomes more rote with "The Game of Their Lives," the true story of a ragtag squad of Yank soccer players' upset of a Blighty team during the 1950 prelims for the World Cup. Picturesque pic, however, lacks even a penalty kick's worth of tension. Tale is much better known in the Mother Country than in the States.
The routine genre of inspirational sports movies becomes more rote with “The Game of Their Lives,” the true story of a ragtag squad of Yank soccer players’ upset of a Blighty team during the 1950 prelims for the World Cup. Picturesque pic, however, lacks even a penalty kick’s worth of tension and is paradoxically inert for a movie about guys running up and down the pitch for the glory of the U.S. Tale is much better known in the Mother Country than in the States, assuring the film a cellar position in B.O. standings and a quick drop to vid leagues.
Director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo (adapting from Geoffrey Douglas’ tome) attempt to apply the same magic that worked for them with “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” two similar but more energetic underdog sagas. Centered on a minor match to begin with, “Game” especially suffers in comparison to the recent”Miracle,” a re-creation of a considerably more famous U.S. sporting upset.
In a packed RFK Stadium in D.C. for the MLS all-star game in 2004, the elderly soccer journalist Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart) relates the story, replete with voiceover observations to guide clueless Yank viewers. Clunky beginning sets an overly solemn tone relentlessly underlined by William Ross’ impersonal score, and Dent’s recollections of talented Italian-American players from St. Louis is decorated in gooey nostalgia, due in no small part to lenser Johnny E. Jensen’s excessive backlighting.
Team leader is sure-handed goalkeeper Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler), while scorers are led by “Pee Wee” Wallace (Jay Rodan) and Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor) and protected by enforcer Charlie “Gloves” Columbo (Costas Mandylor).
The younger Dent (Terry Kinney) reports on the squad for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but is as surprised as everyone else when the guys are invited to tryouts for a Yank team to vie for the World Cup.
Instantly, personal complications ensue. However, factual though they may be, the problems lack drama. Nonetheless, Pizzo’s script is constantly bending over backward to insert as many strands of conflict as possible.
The next hurdle is meshing with a squad of upscale Easterners led by straight-arrow war vet Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley). Walter sagely gets goalkeeper Frank on his side, introducing him to gifted Haitian emigre Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis). Coach Bill Jeffrey (John Rhys Davies) at first objects to Joe joining the team, presumably because he’s black, but any cultural clash is swept under the carpet by a movie that gets softer by the reel.
Few characters are individualized enough to humanize the perfunctory storytelling, and the tendency to give each lead near-identical haircuts and clothing is no help. As a result, Butler and Bentley are good actors penned in by the blandness, with only Rodan’s Pee Wee able to show off any quirks.
Prelim match outside Rio (effectively lensed on Brazilian locales) against the Brits may be the game of their lives, but its outcome comes across as rigidly predictable. BBC soccer reporter Tim Vickery injects real vitality into the action with some of the best sports pic play-by-play this side of Vin Scully, but even Vickery’s efforts in the final minutes are too late to bring this snoozer back to life.