Sports Films

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by Walt Opie


"The unconquerable doing the impossible." That's how famed sportswriter Red Smith once described a diving, game-saving catch snagged by baseball legend (and breaker of the color barrier) Jackie Robinson. It would also be a good way to summarize the basic plot of many of the best-loved sports movies, for these films often involve a hyper-determined but flawed underdog, in the guise of either a team or an individual, who must compete with the very best in their chosen sport and try to pull off a miraculous victory (or at least come closer to winning than anyone expects). Examples of this are obvious and innumerable, with Sylvester Stallone's 1976 star vehicle Rocky being the modern prototype.

Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby

In this corner...

The sports movie overlaps into other genres, into drama, comedy, biopic, documentary, action/thriller, or even musical (Damn Yankees). Although there are plenty of exceptions, sports films are often not the most critically revered, but they do tend to hit us where it counts - right in the gut. They are unabashedly emotional in a way we disdain to see in most other kinds of films.

From Raging Bull to Bull Durham, boxing and baseball are the two sports that consistently inspire the most compelling films in this category, followed closely by football, and then probably basketball, horse racing, and hockey. However, many other competitive endeavors have also enjoyed their shining moments on the big screen throughout movie history, especially: auto racing, golf, track and field, skiing, soccer, cycling, pool, surfing, karate, chess, and even rugby. For a great example of the latter, check out This Sporting Life, featuring a young Richard Harris, once an aspiring rugby player himself, in his first Oscar-nominated performance.

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

And the winner is...

Many things can add up to a high-quality sports movie, including genuine emotion and compelling characters, but one of the most important and difficult goals to achieve is verisimilitude, both in the sport being portrayed and, more importantly, in the way the actors themselves come off as prime athletes. This is probably why Robert De Niro, later rewarded for his effort with an Oscar for Best Actor, felt compelled to train and spar for a year with retired boxer Jake La Motta (whom he was portraying) at Gramercy Gym in Manhattan before shooting began on Raging Bull. Considering that actual fight sequences only make up about ten minutes of the final film, this was quite an impressive commitment to verity.

A true sports fan can spot a foul play (pun intentional) or a non-athletic actor a mile away, and this can quickly shatter the suspension of disbelief to such an extent that the movie is rendered ridiculous. Unless the film is a comedy, such as Caddyshack with Chevy Chase smirking his way across the links and Bill Murray trying to destroy gophers under them, the audience usually insists on being convinced that the actor or actors might truly have the physical prowess it takes to land that knockout jab, smack a winning homer into the bleachers, or complete the Hail Mary pass downfield for a touchdown.

Given these challenges, some of the more memorable sports movies have been made by actors and directors who were also once competitive athletes themselves. Burt Reynolds, for example, was a football star at Florida State University and later had two hit movies about that sport - The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977). Writer/Director Ron Shelton played second base in the minor leagues for several years before breaking into Hollywood. He may be the single most successful creator of sports films ever, with a string of box office winners including two with Kevin Costner - Bull Durham and the golf film Tin Cup - as well as the terrifically entertaining White Men Can't Jump starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.

Yet another strategy is to have the story involve fictional athletes who compete at the lower levels of the game, usually for laughs, and the pulling of a few heartstrings. One of the better examples is the hilarious The Bad News Bears about a group of misfit kids who play little league baseball (with Walter Matthau as their irascible, beer-swilling coach). Another notable example is Shelton's sharply written Bull Durham, which chronicles a Class A minor league baseball team (and co-stars future husband and wife duo Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, the latter as wild-throwing pitcher Nuke LaLoosh). Also in this category is the classic 1977 hockey comedy Slap Shot (starring Paul Newman), about a minor league hockey team that goes from bad to downright dangerous. Slap Shot also featured real-life pro hockey players Jeff Carlson, Steve Carlson, and David Hanson playing the thuggish Hanson Brothers (the latter was cast when Jack Carlson could not appear in the movie with his two other real life brothers).

Emphasizing the popularity of the originals, both The Longest Yard and The Bad News Bears are set to reappear in 2005 in updated, and likely pointless, remakes, with Adam Sandler dubiously reprising the Burt Reynolds role and, more promisingly, Billy Bob Thornton standing in for the irreplaceable Walter Matthau, respectively.


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