by Bill Gallagher
The surest way to deep-six a movie about the NFL is to put the players in uniforms that
are supposed to look like the real thing but couldn’t fool a blind football fan.
When Oliver Stone tried to give us an idea of what life in the NFL is really like with
“Any Given Sunday,” he almost succeeded. But those uniforms looked bogus. It might
have worked had he gotten permission from the powers that be to put players into the true
colors of the Miami Dolphins.
When Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves teamed in “The Replacements” as the coach
and quarterback who cross the picket lines during the NFL player’s strike of 1987, the
results were pretty bizarre, despite a decent concept. And damned if those uniforms for
the Washington Sentinels didn't have me thinking from the get-go, “Yeah right, look at
what those guys are wearing....this isn’t the NFL.”
The problem for filmmakers who want to make a movie that might sully the image of the
NFL is the same problem faced by filmmakers who want to make war movies that may in
some way tarnish the image the Pentagon wants for its fighting forces. Basically, you
play by their rules, and they’ll cooperate. You go your own way, and you can kiss the real
uniforms or the real weapons systems goodbye.
Disney decided that for its new movie, “Invincible,” it was better to play by the NFL
rules and preserve verisimilitude with real uniforms than to put the wardrobe department
to work and shoot the original script, which reportedly included more swearing, gambling
and heavy drinking than the NFL was willing to sanction.
In light of what happened with “Any Given Sunday” and “The Replacements,” Disney
made the right choice. Seeing as how “Invincible” is the almost-true story of a 30-year-
old South Philadelphia bartender/substitute teacher who makes the team by way of an
unprecedented open tryout and becomes the captain of the Eagle’s special teams for three
seasons, how could Disney not have done whatever the league demanded for the rights to
use real Eagle uniforms?
Sure, it would have been interesting to see a movie that has players talking the way we
imagine players really talk, but if the “F” word is used three or more times, you’re
looking at not only faux uniforms because the NFL won't cooperate, but you’ve got to
deal with an R rating. As for heavy drinking and gambling, well, that movie could still be
made. It just wouldn’t include any believable on-field action.
Disney is going out of its way to promote “Invincible” as being "from the studio that
brought you ‘The Rookie’ and ‘The Mighty Ducks’” in an effort to own a genre that
might best be called “movies about athletes you can still believe in.” Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin need not apply for a screen treatment of their athletic
The screenwriter Disney turned to when it came time to “fix” the original script for
“Invincible,” so it might win NFL approval, is Mike Rich. Rich happens to be the
Beaverton writer who gave the studio its hit, “The Rookie.” He has managed to craft a
story that’s entertaining, inspiring and even amusing at times. He writes scenes that
establish the character of his characters without overreaching or becoming treacly.
Mark Wahlberg plays Vince Papale, the 30-year-old kid with undeniable athletic talent
who takes his shot when the new Eagles coach Dick Vermiel (Greg Kinnear) decides he’s
got nothing to lose by holding an open tryout for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in
16 years. At this point in his life, Papale’s lost his part-time teaching job, his wife has left
him, and he’s got to plead for a few extra hours tending bar. If it wasn’t for bad luck, he
wouldn’t have any luck at all. Now anyone with half a brain knows he’s going to make
the team, so it’s up to the screenwriter and the director, Ericson Core, to make the
inevitable interesting. Which they do.
Core has not directed before, but he’s done some nice cinematography on “Daredevil”
and “Payback.” From the opening scenes of a depressed South Philly, we know we’re in
the hands of a director who can use images to convey the idea that there’s really no way
out of this particular neighborhood. The streets are narrow. Prospects are few. You feel
claustrophobic. Thank God for football. Problem is, the Eagles suck.
So not only is “Invincible” the story of Vince Papale’s unlikely path to glory, it’s the
story of the redemption of a once-proud franchise. If Marx were around in the late 70s to
see the way his beloved proletariat lives and dies in Philly with the Eagles, he might
have decided that pro football, rather than religion, was the opiate of the masses.
One of the reasons “Invincible” works as well as it does is Mark Wahlberg. He may not
be a great actor, but he’s definitely a movie star. His athleticism serves him well here,
even though he’s quite a few inches shorter than the real Vince Papale. We see him
playing a rough and tumble type of street football with his buddies in a dusty lot lit only
by the lights of several “beaters” (i.e. cars that are probably worth less than the unpaid
parking tickets they've attracted). This is no light beer commercial. The real Papale
actually saw some playing time in the old World Football League, but for the purposes of
“Invincible,” the streets of Philadelphia provide his only gridiron experience prior to his
ascendancy to the NFL.
Wahlberg’s own real life story would probably be dismissed as too unbelievable if
someone pitched it to Hollywood. The youngest of nine kids who grew up quick in a
tough Boston neighborhood, he first did drugs at the age of 10 and went to the Deer
Island Penitentiary for two months at the age of 17 for beating the crap out of a couple of
Vietnamese men he was trying to rob. (I've got to chuckle when I see this referred to as a
“minor” felony in his bios—what an oxymoron.) In prison he bulked up with weights and decided to go straight. He did so, ironically, by becoming a gay icon with Calvin Klein
underwear ads and with a short but lucrative music career as Marky Mark.
Then he started making movies. The first time I saw him was in an overlooked gem
called “Traveller” about Irish-American con men who are descendants of Tinkers (Irish
Gypsies) from the old country. After that, he hit the big time as porn star Dirk Diggler in
“Boogie Nights.” There have been as many hits (“The Perfect Storm,” “Three Kings,” “I
Heart Huckabees,” “The Italian Job”) as misses (“Rock Star,” “Planet of the Apes,”
“Four Brothers”) in his career. But even when toiling in a turkey, Wahlberg’s got
something going for him—something known for years in Hollywood as “it,” and that
serves him well in “Invincible.”
It’s unfortunate that we’ll never see a movie that documents the Machiavellian
complexities that must go into managing a marketing behemoth like the NFL, at least not
one that features real uniforms. The problem is that what the players wear is so ingrained
in our consciousness that suspending disbelief when the look is all wrong would be
impossible. Perhaps the answer is to make a movie about the NFL that eschews the on-
field action for the real action in the corporate offices and owners’ suites. You could start
by telling the story of how the league protects its image.
BILL GALLAGHER IS THE NEWS DIRECTOR OF AM 860 KPAM - THE TALK
STATION. HIS MOVIE REVIEWS CAN BE HEARD OCCASIONALLY ON THE
BOB MILLER SHOW.
BrainstormNW - September 2006