A Few Flags on the Play, But We Have a Winner

Greg Kinnear, left, as coach Dick Vermeil and Mark Wahlberg as rookie Vince Papale.
Greg Kinnear, left, as coach Dick Vermeil and Mark Wahlberg as rookie Vince Papale. (By Ron Phillips -- Disney Enterprises)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006

Every critic brings to the table certain biases, predilections, reflexive reactions and otherwise maddening tics: a weakness for Mark Ruffalo, for example, or an inexplicable failure to get on board the biopic craze, whether with "Ray" or "Walk the Line." But chief among this critic's soft spots has got to be the story of a real-life underdog who makes good in sports. "The Rookie"? Loved it. "Miracle"? Ditto. "Glory Road"? Glorious -- despite what most of the other critics in America said.

So it will surprise few to know that I like "Invincible." Hailing from the same team that brought us "The Rookie" and "Miracle," this is a film that clearly invokes those wonderful movies, albeit with mixed success. The story of Vince Papale, who in 1976 tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles on a whim and wound up not just making the team but helping it overcome a demoralizing losing streak, "Invincible" touches on irresistible themes -- determination, guts and proletarian grit -- that evoke the American Dream at its most scrappy and appealing. If "Invincible" succumbs to the conventions that so often bedevil Hollywood's attempts at bringing true stories to the screen, even those predilections and maddening tics can't get in the way of a terrific story.

Papale (pronounced pa-PAHL-ee) was a recently out-of-work substitute teacher and part-time bartender when former UCLA football coach Dick Vermeil arrived in Philadelphia to try to resuscitate the failing Eagles, whose woeful record only magnified the economic and social malaise that had gripped the city in the 1970s. Hated by foes and fans alike, the Eagles were famously scruffy, wearing beards and glaring meanly under their long hair. Enter the clean-cut California boy Vermeil, who staged open tryouts at Veterans Stadium more as a publicity stunt to get fans excited than anything else. But when Papale -- who never played college football -- ran a 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, Vermeil took notice. It turned out that the 30-year-old Papale also had a pair of sticky hands. But, as "Invincible" portrays it, Vermeil decided to keep him not just because of his skills on the field but because "he has heart."

As cliched as that line sounds, Greg Kinnear -- who plays Vermeil in yet another note-perfect performance -- delivers it with understated subtlety. But the chief problem with "Invincible" is that Mark Wahlberg, who plays Papale, hasn't yet had a chance to exhibit the heart Vermeil is talking about. As a man whose life has pretty much fallen apart (he's not only lost his job but he's been dumped by his wife, and one by one his family and friends are hitting the skids thanks to layoffs, strikes and bad luck), Wahlberg delivers a performance that is so diffident and emotionally muffled that he's almost a cipher. Moving numbly from the bar where he works to a digitally re-created Veterans Stadium, Wahlberg's Papale barely utters a word, suffering his teammates' derision and jealousy with proletarian stoicism; he's readable mostly through the furrows in his forehead.

Still, Wahlberg is convincing, even if he's chosen a role in which, if the footage that appears during the closing credits is any indication, the real-life guy is better-looking than the actor playing him. And when Wahlberg's Papale does get a chance to interact with the other Eagles, whether Vermeil or training camp roommate Denny Franks, the scenes hum along with a wry, low-key humor. "I'm a center," says Franks, played by former NFL free agent Stink Fisher. "I hate everybody."

That's one of the few laugh-out-loud moments in a movie that could probably use a few more of them, and fewer '70s-era music cues and slow-motion effects. "Invincible" marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Ericson Core, whose roots as a cameraman are both a strength and a weakness: He does an outstanding job of evoking Papale's tribal community of South Philly, yet he too often reverts to over-pretty, stylized flourishes. A scene of a rain-drenched pickup football game plays like an overlong here's-to-good-friends beer commercial.

There's a love story involving Papale's fellow bartender (played by the blandly blond Elizabeth Banks), but the soul of "Invincible" lies in the football scenes, which crackle with the crunch and oomph of on-field action (Core approximates Papale's speed through the aforementioned visual effects, with mostly effective results). And by the time Papale makes his winning stand at the season home opener-- after an underwhelming debut in Dallas -- filmgoers will be rooting not only for the down-and-outer made good but for the town that pinned its hopes on him.

A scene midway through "Invincible," in which Papale jogs for hours through his blue-collar streets, will surely remind viewers of "Rocky," the nickname his teammates bestowed on the real-life Papale. But as a hymn to the working class and the most mythologized values it embodies -- physical toughness, quiet endurance, integrity and loyalty -- "Invincible" recalls Bruce Springsteen (maybe the only person whose songs don't appear on the soundtrack). There's a wonderful sequence that exemplifies all the rue and promise that "Invincible" gets right: Papale has just made the team, but his car won't start. As his friend arrives to give him a jump, Papale stands there with the Rust Belt crumbling behind him, quietly aching to prove that amid the thwarted dreams of all the mooks and the losers and the clock punchers, maybe he was born to run.

Invincible (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for sports action and some mild profanity.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company