Film Review: ‘When the Game Stands Tall’

'When the Game Stands Tall' Review:

Jim Caviezel trades Golgotha for the gridiron in a wan inspiration sports drama that reminds us winning isn't everything (but it sure is nice).

The religion of high-school football commingles with plain old-fashioned religion in “When the Game Stands Tall,” an inspirational sports drama (from Sony’s inhouse, faith-based label Affirm Films) that goes long on rectitudinous sermonizing but comes up short on gridiron thrills or genuine love for the game. Save for a couple of fine performances relegated to the sidelines, no one really brings their “A” game to this lazily executed late-summer programmer — a “Friday Night Lights” for the Sunday-school crowd graced by little of the storytelling craft and skillful emotional manipulation that have distinguished the recent wave of superior Disney sports pics. After an opening weekend that may see a bump from church-group sales, expect “Game” to do most of its rushing and passing on home screens.

Like most entries in this particular genre, “When the Game Stands Tall” traffics in the usual tropes of scrappy heroes and come-from-behind victories — except that, in this case, the underdogs are more like alpha dogs, and they don’t go from last to first so much as from first to second and back again. But then, there’s more to life than just winning — a mantra the movie announces with such frequency and fervor that if you don’t leave the theater with it ringing in your head, you should head straight for the nearest ear doctor. When our story begins in the fall of 2003, the De La Salle High School Spartans of tree-lined Concord, Calif., are coming to the end of yet another undefeated season that has left them with the longest unbroken winning streak — 151 games — in American sports history. But dark clouds loom on the horizon: A large chunk of the team’s starting lineup is due to graduate in the spring, and the underclassmen waiting to take their places seem to lack a certain team spirit.

“The streak was never our goal,” says the Spartans’ mild-mannered coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), a religious studies teacher at this private Catholic enclave who preaches the gospel of good sportsmanship (with a bit of Luke and Matthew thrown in for good measure) and rarely opens his mouth without some similarly honeyed homily dropping out of it. It’s not giving much away to say that De La Salle’s streak does come to an ignominious end, but not before good Coach L. almost meets his maker due to a massive coronary (prefigured, in a mark of director Thomas Carter’s ham-fisted style, by multiple closeups of Ladouceur’s cigarette stash).

Five stents later, Ladouceur is good as new, but somehow the Spartans’ mojo isn’t quite working. Some of the cocky new players don’t seem to understand that there’s no “I” in “team,” and everyone is shattered when beloved linebacker Terrance T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) is killed in a random act of urban violence (foreshadowed by risibly cliche images of malt-liquor-swilling revelers bumping and grinding to Montell Jordan). Still, “When the Game Stands Tall” has already been on the screen for nearly an hour by the time the Spartans finally lose, during an away game against a national-championship Seattle team — the proverbial inciting incident that most screenplay manuals tell you to include no later than page 15.

A shot at redemption hovers in the form of a ballyhooed game against a Long Beach team with a 330-pound offensive tackle. But as this sluggish film winds its way toward that inevitable showdown, it generates little in the way of rooting interest. In adapting Neil Hayes’ nonfiction book, screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”) and David Zelon (who receives a story credit with Smith) have painted nearly every character into a blandly stereotypical corner, whether it’s the golden-boy running back (Alexander Ludwig) with a hard-driving booster dad (a snarling, mustache-twirling Clancy Brown); Ladouceur’s own wide-receiver son (Matthew Daddario), on hand mainly to grouse things like, “When I needed a dad, I got a coach, and now when I need a coach, you want to be a dad”; and Ladouceur himself, the kind of secular saint who tosses lucrative college coaching offers into the trash bin as if they were yesterday’s fish wrap. (Doing by far the best work in the film, Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern manage to suggest glimmers of inner lives as, respectively, Ladouceur’s longtime assistant coach and acquiescent wife.)

Carter, a proficient journeyman director who did a modestly more energetic job with 2005’s high-school basketball drama “Coach Carter,” never seems to get inside the world of the movie. His football scenes lack any visceral, bone-crunching impact, and when he ventures off the field, the movie fails to foster the sense of family and community that drive the best sports dramas. Carter’s leafy NoCal suburbs and their adjacent war-torn ghettos have all the neighborhood feel of the Warner Bros. backlot.

Even a better director, though, might have been at a loss to solve a problem like Caviezel. When the real Ladouceur appears in documentary footage under the movie’s end credits, he seems a stern but folksy, avuncular figure, a bit like a more athletic Garrison Keillor. But Caviezel turns him into a dour ascetic who scarcely cracks a smile and suffers profoundly for each of his players who fails to grasp the true meaning of “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s a comically self-serious turn, but at least it’s interesting in a way that little else in “When the Game Stands Tall” manages to be. It is sometimes said that a great actor can take dross and make it sound like Shakespeare. Here, Caviezel takes “Hoosiers” and plays it as though he were still nailed to the cross.

Film Review: 'When the Game Stands Tall'

Reviewed at Sony Pictures screening room, New York, Aug. 20, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures presentation in association with Affirm Films of a Mandalay Sports Media production. Produced by David Zelon. Executive producers, Cathy Schulman, David Tice, Thomas Carter. Co-producers, Neil Hayes, Adam Stone.

Crew

Directed by Thomas Carter. Screenplay, Scott Marshall Smith; story, Smith, David Zelon, based on the book by Neil Hayes. Camera (color), Michael Lohmann; editor, Scott Richter; music, John Paesano; music supervisors, Dave Jordan, Jo Jo Villanueva; production designer, Jaymes Hinkle; art director, Raymond Pumilia; set decorator, Kristen Bicksler; costume designer, Claire Breaux; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Dan Izen; supervising sound editor, Steven Ticknor; re-recording mixers, Chris Carpenter, Jeff J. Haboush; visual effects supervisor/producer, Raymond McInture Jr.; visual effects, Pixel Magic; line producer, Kenneth Burke; associate producer, Nathon S. Lewis; assistant director, Mark Anthony Little; second unit director/stunt coordinator, Allan Graf; second unit camera, Shawn Maurer; casting, Victoria Thomas.

With

Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Laura Dern, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie T. Usher, Richard Kohnke, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James.

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  1. Sharon says:

    The movie was so inspiring and worth while for all generations to see. The message of team work, working for someone other than yourself was enjoyable to watch. I had no idea this coach existed and he certainly was the right man for the job of inspiring his team to live better lives. I thought the movie had a storyline and wasn’t held together with exploding bombs and dogging bullets., acrobatic leaps and no plot. I told two other people about the movie and they both went to see it and enjoyed it as much as I did………….

  2. Orla says:

    Apparently the said “Critics” knew nothing about the true story behind the movie, who coach Bob is and what his personalities are. What a pity. He just can’t accept anything different from his imagination, anything with Caviezel in it

  3. SavhCaro says:

    Did you READ the book, as research, before you saw this movie? You would know that Jim Caviezel’s take on Coach Lad was perfect. When making a movie about a REAL LIVE PERSON you make it about a real live person…..not a character made up in some writer’s head. You totally missed the whole point of this movie. It was what Coach Lad did, in his own quiet way, to instill a sense of responsibility to those around you…..which is sadly lacking in today’s society. Love, responsibility and respect are powerful motivators. That is what this movie is about……it just happened to be what happened to a real football team and the winning just was a result of what Coach Lad taught these young men. As shown in the movie, he chose to stay in the high school setting where he could do the most good for young men…..not a college or NFL team. Money & prestige are not everyone’s goal in life…..

  4. Jim Harf says:

    Agenda driven review offered up by a guy who made up his mind before even seeing the film. Written to appease (and humor) himself and his secularist buddies, Foundas reminds his readers that film “critics” are often nothing more than political mouthpieces for the liberals they strive to cater to. My guess is that the reviews for any number of Matt Damon “think pieces” lead with terms like “visionary” and “genius” as a way to curry favor with the social classes this dude runs with. With such an obvious dislike for anything outside his own tastes is it any wonder readership for the magazine the guy represents is so low in circulation?

  5. Ben Novak says:

    A lot of critics hated “Top Gun” too. So much for opinions. Moviegoers should see the film and make individual judgements.

  6. Jackie Twodat Jackson says:

    The movie was excellent. The message is beautiful, something that this critic seems to miss while trying to be wordy and seems to have a grudge against some of it’s cast. Maybe he isn’t into good positive movies. It seems the critic missed the whole theme of this movie. Sorry movie critic but your wrong on this one. Ask my family, positive experience and.they enjoyed it very much.

  7. bernadette nickson says:

    Jim Caviezel is certainly still “Nailed to the cross” of this “blandly steriotypical” anti-christian reviewer.and his rectitudinous sermonizing review.

  8. The world can be tough and nasty and people need inspiration says:

    I hope a lot of folks see the film, like it, and live better lives because of its message.

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