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'Hoosiers'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 27, 1987

 


Director:
David Anspaugh
Cast:
Gene Hackman;
Barbara Hershey;
Dennis Hopper;
Sheb Wooley
PG
Parental guidance suggested


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"HOOSIERS" is a rousing work of hoops and hooplah from the state that's already given us such cheering American institutions as "Breaking Away" and David Letterman.

Based on local Wabash legend and set in the days when a 6-foot-3 center was considered a thyroid case, "Hoosiers" pits the country Cinderellas of Hickory High against the players of an Indianapolis powerhouse in the 1951 state championship. And, of course, nothing boosts a moviegoer's spirits like underdog derring-do -- Hail Mary miracles and tiebreakers at the buzzer.

But fancy shots alone don't win the game any more than fancy shots make a picture. You gotta have heart -- you gotta rebound, bounce back, come from behind like "Rocky" and "The Natural." Here, the heart is Dennis Hopper and Gene Hackman as a couple of appealing losers who get a second chance. Hackman, with his common-man charisma, has the leading role as a once-successful collegiate coach barred from the big time for slugging one of his own players.

Hickory High's principal, an old friend, hires Hackman's Norman Dale to coach the isolated farm-town team. First, he must overcome the hostility of the local zealots, good old boys who are accustomed to coaching from the stands. Coach proves a strong, silent type whose unorthodox techniques challenge the cornfed kids -- who, with the help of God and Gipper, a big-hearted waterboy, the town drunk and a rejuvenated star player, go to the state championships.

Hopper, a late Oscar nominee for this supporting role, is the former basketball hero Shooter, now a shaggy, staggering humiliation to his basketball-playing son (David Neidorf). Hopper, usually a you-better-believe-it psychopath, is easily as convincing in this soulful role. Shooter has redemption within his grasp when Norman offers him an assistant's job, provided he sobers up.

Come winter, the team becomes the focus of idle farmers in this pre-TV community. When Norman arrives for the first practice, he finds seven of these beefy young demigods suited up -- and that's counting the equipment manager. Norman breaks and then remakes the team, which is composed of Indiana amateurs chosen for their athletic as well as their acting instincts.

Three quarters of the story is told on the court with fast-break cinematography that catches the pace of the game and the gasps of the crowd. Without today's slams and intricate plays, the sport seems slowed down -- it was slowed down -- but you'll be on the edge of your seat anyway, perfectly manipulated by director David Anspaugh of TV's "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere" and "Miami Vice."

The quality cast makes this tournament heart-tugging without being cloying. Barbara Hershey shows her flinty side as an unmarried schoolteacher who warms to the coach after a sour start. The humble Hackman, with his decent face and bad haircut, gives the movie a credible core that offsets the corn -- all those freckled faces and prayers before the game.

Yet much of the movie's validity stems from time and place recreated with such authenticity that you can sense the wet chill in the morning air and the new wax pungent on the old gym floor. Maybe that's because Anspaugh is a heartlander, who made "Hoosiers" with college chum Angelo Pizzo, a native of Indiana who took a sabbatical from Time-Life Films to write the evergreen screenplay.

Even though we've seen it all before, "Hoosiers" scores big by staying small. "Win this for all the small schools who never got a chance to get there," says one of the players before the big game. You can't help but feel a catch in your throat. HOOSIERS (PG) -- At area theaters.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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