There is an odd quirk of fate in my assignment of Invincible, the “inspirational” true-life story of the 1976 Philadelphia Eagles’ walk-on phenom, Vince Papale. Its release date coincidentally falls on the same day that the TV Whore and I are flying to Vegas for our annual fantasy football draft (yeah … I know there is also some irony in the fact that I give shit to the D&D freaks). In fact, Seth — a Philly boy through and through, with his own diehard love of the “Iggles” (hell, he’s actually heard of Papale) — was supposed to cover the film. But as chance would have it, his flight didn’t accommodate an early enough screening, leaving me to write the damn review from a cruising altitude of 32,000 feet, via a layover in Philly, a city I have absolutely no love for. In fact, my sole firsthand experience with the Eagles came during a visit to Veterans Stadium four years ago to watch the Indianapolis Colts thrash McNabb and the Iggles, 42-10. Out of morbid curiosity, I even spent some time on the 700 level, which looked a bit like one of those postapocalyptic scenes from Terminator 2, where anarchy reigns, bodies congregate as though in a mosh pit, and trash cans five feet from the concession stands double as makeshift urinals. I grew up in a Southern meth-ghetto where everyone had an arsenal of firepower in the cab of their truck right above the Confederate flag, and the 700 level still scared the living hell out of me.
As it turns out, however, there is some congruity here, in that Disney knows about as much about the city of Philadelphia in 1976 as does a Colts fan from Arkansas. Indeed, Disney has created a city based solely upon South Philly stereotypes: rusty film stock; 1970s porn hair; row houses; genial, blue-collar alcoholism; and the requisite shot outside of Gino’s. The entire Philly-fan mentality, in fact, has been synthesized into one lone event, in which Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa Claus. Admittedly, there’s probably not a Philly devotee in America who’s not a little proud of that moment (or of throwing batteries at J.D. Drew), but the story of Vince Papale deserved a richer, more authentic backdrop, which might’ve included the grittier side of the city (and maybe even a few toilet trashcans). Unfortunately, there’s not a lot difference between this setting and that of 1997’s Good Will Hunting, situated in South Boston, and I swear that screenwriter Brad Gann even stole a scene right out of it.
Indeed, Invincible is yet another homogenous sports story, cleansed of all genuineness, leaving the audience with typical feel-good Disney film. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Considering the level of turbulence right now, I’m rethinking my approach to the review, knowing as I do that the Football Gods are ever-present and not above knocking your plane out of the sky if you fuck with football lore (in fact, there is a man behind me right now praying to Jesus and, heathen that I am, I may join him in a second). So, I’ll say this: As far as feel-good sports flicks go, you can hardly go wrong with Invincible. I don’t see it making any of the Sports Guy’s ubiquitous lists of “movies for guys who like to weep” or anything, but I suspect it might make honorable mention among the 50 best sports movies of all time.
It does, after all, have one helluva story. In 1976, the same year that Rocky was being filmed across town, the Eagles were coming off a string of lousy seasons and decided to hire Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) — a pretty-boy coach out of UCLA — to take over the team. In an effort to stir up some excitement, Vermeil held open auditions, inviting locals to try out for the team, “American Idol” style. Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) was a 30-year-old unemployed substitute teacher picking up shifts at a neighborhood bar when he decided to take a chance on becoming an Eagle after his wife left him. Of the throngs of Eagles fanatics to tryout, Papale was the only one to get a callback, and thus began his Rudy-like struggle to make the team.
Along his ascent, he encountered the expected obstacles, most of which I’m sure were manufactured from the Disney playbook: Papale’s teammates treated him like a scab, he was weighed down by life back in the neighborhood, he couldn’t pay his rent and, somewhere along the way, he even lost heart ever-so-briefly, a problem solved in typical Disney fashion by a reinvigorating neighborhood pickup game with his buddies.
The real problem with Invincible, however, is that — though he makes a believable football player — there is nothing particularly inspiring about Wahlberg’s performance. There’s no scrappy, get-up-or-die mentality, and he coasts along with no real sense of optimism, awaiting his cut with a listless harrumph that doesn’t exactly endear you to him. Vermeil said that what set Papale apart from the rest of the players was his “heart and character,” yet there’s nothing of that in Wahlberg’s performance. In fact, you never even see Papale’s rousing energy until the credits show actual footage from his career, which finally gives you an idea about the kind of player he was.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that half the movie is mired down in a pointless, female-demographic-inspired love story with Janet (Elizabeth Banks), a subplot all the more off-putting in light of Janet’s real life shenanigans at a recent screening of the movie. Janet was a Giants fan, a contrivance seemingly introduced solely to create some misguided comedic relief when she appeared at one of Vince’s games in a blue jersey. There was no goddamn way, though — not unless she didn’t mind having batteries thrown at her.
Kinnear, however, is brilliant, assuming every bit of Dick Vermeil’s tough-guy gooeyness and his almost perpetual scowl. Even when he’s being a hardass, his eyes glisten with genuine affection, making him exactly the kind of coach for whom you want to play. In fact, I saw someone mention a few days ago that he didn’t buy Kinnear as Vermeil because he thought Kinnear’s performance was too vulnerable, too emotional. Clearly, whoever said that was unfamiliar with Vermeil, a good coach who nevertheless weeps at the sound of the whistle. A part of me, in fact, would’ve preferred to see a film centered around Vermeil’s four-year turnaround of the Eagles, leading them from embarrassing bottom-dwellers to the Super Bowl, though I’m not sure I could stomach an epic with three hours of ’70s classic rock songs (however, there was one Jackson Browne tune in Invincible that made all the rest of the period music almost worth it).
I’ll say this, though: Invincible does sport one monster of a rousing ending, absolutely dripping in feel-good dramatics. For any hardcore football fan who hasn’t seen a touchdown since January, however, the bar hasn’t been set particularly high. Still, it’s got all the sports-movie touchstones: Meaningful game, final seconds, and odds-defying heroics, even if it is on freakin’ special teams. But, for a real-life story, it all felt a little too perfect, a bit too Disneyfied, and I’m going to be bummed as hell if I find out that it didn’t happen the way it was written. But I’ll ignore that for now, because if my plane hurtles toward the ground due to the 30-knot head wind that currently has me re-tasting my US Airways fancy cashews, I’d hate to leave this world on a sour note.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.E-A-G- ... L ... Oh, Screw It
Film | August 29, 2006 | Comments ()