Americans love their sports, and they love their winning streaks, above all. In the NFL, the New England Patriots hold the record with 21 straight wins. In college football, the Oklahoma Sooners ran off an incredible 47 consecutive victories. Of course when two of your opponents every year are from the state of Kansas, it's understandable. (Just kidding, Sunflower state fans).
In high school football, the streak to beat stands at 151, held by the De La Salle Spartans of Concord, California, about 20 miles east of San Francisco. That's the subject of "When The Game Stands Tall". Trying desperately to fit the mold of earlier inspirational sports films, like "Hoosiers" or "Friday Night Lights", this particular effort from director Thomas Carter falls short.
Jim Caviezel plays Bob Ladouceur, De La Salle's legendary, at least in California, high-minded philosophical coach, then and now --- the undefeated run ended in 2003. He eschews any talk of a streak, and nothing turns his face into a scowl greater than such blather. He's much more concerned about how his players conduct themselves on and off the field.
Alexander Ludwig ("Hunger Games") plays Chris Ryan, the stud running back of the Spartans. He looks great in shoulder pads, wearing No. 34 --- but he's no Walter Payton. Still, he has a chance to set the high school record for most touchdowns in a career, needing four in his final game. This fact is drummed into our heads so often in this film, it's an insult to the audience's intelligence. Chris' father, Mickey, an obnoxious, over-the-top performance by Clancy Brown, is given copious amounts of ridiculous dialogue by screenwriter Scott Marshall Smith. It's enough, alone, to ruin the movie.
On the plus side, the actors portraying the athletes look and move like actual football players. Nothing undermines a sports film quicker than an actor who can't throw a baseball or catch a pass. If you've ever seen "Fear Strikes Out", the Jimmy Piersall story starring Anthony Perkins, you'll know what I mean.
Caviezel and Laura Dern, who plays the coach's wife Bev, try to make this a family film with heart and poignancy. Indeed, one of the De L Salle players is the coach's son, Danny (Matthew Daddario). We learn the coach's devotion to his team over the years has overshadowed his relationship with, and neglect of, his family, especially Danny. But this sub-story is not very compelling.
Certainly when Ladouceur eulogizes one of the team's former stars who was murdered just days before starting a scholarship at Oregon, it's a sincere moment. And Beaser, the team's defensive line standout played endearingly by Joe Massingill, is a typical high school football player, and quite likeable.
But the movie suffers from something even more than the stale dialogue and Brown's overacting. It's the sound effects of the action on the field. Every single tackle, every point of contact, sounds like two 400 pounders colliding in mid-air.
It's nerve-wracking and what's worse, not realistic.
Once the streak ends, early in the film, the team must regroup. They actually start off the next season with two losses --- unimaginable in the small town of Concord. But now Ladouceur and his assistant coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis) must find a way to return De La Salle to its former glory. It sets up a dramatic final game encounter, but again, the sideshow that is Clancy Brown
spoils the moment.
Opinion: Mild Wait for DVD