Based on the almost impossible-to-believe true story of South Philadelphia barkeep Vince Papale’s bid to make the roster of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, “Invincible” has victory on its mind — starting with its title. The latest entry in Disney’s ever-growing stable of triumphant sports movies (“The Rookie,” “Glory Road”), pic nevertheless seldom feels canned or the result of a mass-production assembly line. Although Giants fans may not like reliving one of their most ignominious days, aud appeal of this PG-rated inspirer should be wide and deep, cashing in on football fever just before the NFL season opens.
The film’s most obvious sports movie connection is to “Rocky,” with its mythic account of another Philly underdog who never gave up. Yet thanks to rookie director (and vet lenser) Ericson Core’s handling and Mark Wahlberg’s and Greg Kinnear’s soberly professional and firmly grounded portrayals of Papale and Dick Vermeil, respectively, little here indulges in “Rocky”-like theatrics or overkill. (The exception is a secondary narrative that tries to shoehorn a love story to limited effect.)
If anything, “Invincible” begins on an unexpectedly poetic and solemn note, with a credit sequence that serves as a photographic elegy to a working-class urban neighborhood on the verge of economic and physical collapse in the mid-’70s. Symbolizing the failure are the Eagles, finishing another dreadful season in 1975 and drifting further from their winning tradition. Loss hits nobody harder than Vince, one of countless victims of local factory closures who is barely supporting his family with substitute teaching stints and nighttime bartending.
Vince’s wife Sharon (Lola Glaudini) splits just as the Eagles hire Vermeil away from the Rose Bowl-winning UCLA Bruins. A bit too automatically, Vince then meets Janet (Elizabeth Banks), pretty cousin of bar owner Max (Michael Rispoli) and a lifelong New York Giants fan.
In a move that makes this past era appear quaint and romantic compared to the high-salaried, businesslike atmosphere of today’s NFL, Vermeil calls for open tryouts prior to the ’76 season — thus welcoming in every Eagles fan nursing a long-held dream of donning the green uniform.
Vince is the only guy off the street to make the grade, and though he’s the toast of Max’s bar — and a surprise to his worn-out dad Frank (the aptly cast Kevin Conway) — he’s a Pariah in the Eagles clubhouse.
Brad Gann’s screenplay smoothly and convincingly tracks Vince’s extremely uneven efforts to secure a toe-hold in the organization, as well as Vermeil’s own uphill efforts to turn the franchise around. But the filmmakers are much less certain where to go when off the gridiron and practice field. The milieu around Max’s reeks of old beer and a sweaty camaraderie, and Banks musters all of her endearing spirit for her role, but the budding tryst of Vince and Janet never escapes the shackles of pure formula screenwriting.
In a sign of Wahlberg’s commitment to his part (apart from some visibly bulging arm and back muscles), Vince’s repeated certainty that he’ll be cut never feels less than real. Once in preseason games, the film thrusts the viewer into Vince’s p.o.v. with gusto, whether running downfield as a special teams player or lying on the ground after brutal hits. While it doesn’t reach the level of visceral — or dramatic — impact of “Friday Night Lights,” “Invincible” generally gets the game’s physical nature right, most ironically via Core’s choice of slo-mo action shots.
On a personal roll after “Little Miss Sunshine” and, particularly, “Fast Food Nation,” Kinnear impressively musters the full scope of Vermeil’s forthrightness and toughness blended with unmistakable decency. Kinnear has quietly become one of the most reliable of American actors; much the same can be said of Wahlberg, here in a starring performance ideally suited to his utterly unpretentious and direct acting style.
Banks smartly uses her personality to fill in a fairly blank role, while Rispoli, Conway and Kirk Acevedo craft solid variations on their roles as blue-collar guys.
Handling both directing and cinematography duties, Core invests both with a clearly impassioned sense of place, period and perspective regarding this fanfare for common men. While his usually nighttime cityscapes are crusted in shadows and framed by aging frame and brick buildings on the verge of crumbling, his sun-drenched exterior settings on the field act like a shock of adrenaline.
His intelligent and artful collaborators include production designer Sarah Knowles and composer Mark Isham, both at the top of their game. Period song selections (with no music supervisor credit attached) are overplayed at times yet notably avoid the punk-versus-disco clash for a rich overview of the era’s wondrous songwriting.