August 23, 2014

'When the Game Stands Tall' review

By Carl Kozlowski *

By Carl Kozlowski *

There’s something about great sports movies that inspires viewers even when they don’t care about the sport in question. Many people find boxing brutal, for instance, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t love the original “Rocky” and its noble blue-collar underdog Rocky Balboa.

The same holds true for the new football movie “When the Game Stands Tall,” which isn’t destined for greatness but which will definitely send some heartwarming chills and perhaps a couple of tears through viewers despite the fact that it’s  far more focused on  its football action than on making its characters compelling and sympathetic human beings. 

“Game” tells the true story of coach Bob Ladouceur, who coached the Spartans football team at De La Salle High School in Concord, California – a Catholic school - to the longest winning streak in history by leading them to 151 straight wins. To its credit, the movie makes it unequivocally clear that the secret ingredient to their success is the faith-based education and coaching the players receive, including a couple of in-depth discussions of Scripture and several scenes of them praying the Our Father.

The movie follows the 2003 season, during which a couple of major hardships occurred that caused the team to lose its streak. Ladouceur, who was a heavy smoker, suffered an abrupt heart attack and was ordered not to take the field for the entire season, which caused major tension with his star-player son , who dreamed of being coached by his dad during his final year.

The other, outright tragic, situation arose when a star African-American player who had been living a straight-laced life went to visit a troubled cousin in a bad neighborhood and wound up getting shot and killed. Wracked with grief and without a great replacement player ready, the team lost its footing and lost a game.

But when Ladouceur is miraculously healed in his recovery from heart surgery, he gets permission to coach after all. And that decision comes just in time, for Ladouceur and the Spartans in their pre-season state of glory had asked to take on California high school football’s biggest and toughest team - Long Beach Poly High School -in their schedule since playing their regular opponents was getting ridiculously easy.

“Game” thus becomes the story of how the underdog Spartans learn to both physically, mentally, and especially spiritually learned to man up and face that challenge head on.  And just as the team learns to be stronger after their initial stumbles, so too does the movie follow that path.

Ladouceur is played by Jim Caviezel, who of course rose to fame playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and whose deep personal sense of faith adds gravitas to his performance here. The problem is, though, that Caviezel’s highly contained emotional state often makes it hard to feel impassioned about him and the situations he’s in.

The players also mostly seem interchangeable, except for Alexander Ludwig as a star running back whose father places soul-crushing pressure on him to break a state record for touchdowns. As he learns to navigate his dad’s pressure versus the coach’s lessons of teamwork, the movie builds its strongest momentum.

Overall, “Game” is going to hold far more appeal for football fans than for viewers who are indifferent to the sport, due to its large chunks of screen time devoted to amazingly well-shot play action. But anyone who takes a seat in a theater showing it, will wind up standing in appreciation when it’s over. It’s also thoroughly clean family entertainment and extremely pro-Catholic.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.


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