When the Game Stands Tall (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Ser'Darius Blain, Joe Massingil, Jessie Usher, Clancy Brown, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Matthew Frias
Small role: Maurice Jones-Drew
Director: Thomas Carter
Screenplay: Scott Marshall Smith (based on the book by Neil Hayes)
Review published August 21, 2014
When the Game Stands Tall is a family friendly, and, more notably, Christian-family friendly, drama inspired by true events ("inspired" means liberal amounts of dramatic license, fictional characters, etc.). It's based on the book of the same name by Neil Hayes, a sports writer for the local Bay Area newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, who covered the historic 151-game win streak.
The longest winning streak in all of football belongs to the De La Salle Spartans, from Concord, California (New Orleans substitutes), with an astonishing span of over a decade without a defeat. The lion's share of the credit has gone to their coach who has spent 25 years building up the successful program, Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel, Escape Plan), who has tried his best to instill in his players that the streak isn't really what he aims for, but in turning out better players, and better people. Going into the 2004 season, they meet their biggest challenge yet: the new seniors don't seem to have the same work ethic or talent level of teams past, the coach encounters some scary health issues, and teen violence takes a fatal toll on one of the promising players.
Though the action on the football field is often tense and exciting, it's in the off-the-field drama where director Thomas Carter's movie falters, not able to keep in lockstep with the film (and TV show) from which it is drawing obvious inspiration, Friday Night Lights, with its use of hand-held camerawork, bone-crunching sound, and well-shot on-the-field athletic feats that would be amazing even in an NFL game.
Plenty of manufactured drama enters the mix, with the most excessive example coming from the invention of a domineering dad (Brown, John Dies at the End) who seems to spend every waking moment trying to antagonize his son, star running back Chris Ryan (Ludwig, Lone Survivor) to break the record for most touchdowns in a season. Without much tension after the opening three games of the season, when the only dramatic tension of the film hangs in the balance on whether Ryan pleases or displeases Tiger-Dad, something is definitely amiss in the screenwriting.
Carter is no stranger to high-school sports drama, helming the 2005 inspirational basketball flick, Coach Carter (which is set in nearby Richmond, CA), and even starting off his behind-the-scenes role by directing several episodes of the high-school basketball TV show he appeared in as a regular cast member, "The White Shadow".
Product placement abounds, as the film seems to spare no setting without at least one reference to Nike, Muscle Milk or Dick's Sporting Goods. Lots of quoting from Biblical scripture also is in play, but given that the real team is from a private Catholic boys' school (seems more non-denominational, co-ed and public in this film), it's not terribly overbearing in this regard. De La Salle alum Maurice Jones Drew, who played for three years during the Spartans' streak, even makes a cameo appearance.
It's commendable to see a film that extols the virtues of leadership and character over just putting tallies in the Win column, but not no much when done in such a clichéd, corny, and out-of-step-with-the-times fashion. A documentary on the real De La Salle team and its coach would have been inspirational, but this high-gloss, low-grit Hollywood treatment feels like it's painting by all of the numbers to be just another bland effort in the over-crowded field of inspirational sports flicks. The title alludes to the game standing tall, but among football dramas, it is far from standing alone.
©2014 Vince Leo