INVINCIBLE takes the daring step of making this “based on a true story” sports film more about the emotional journey of its hero, Vince Papale, rather than the standard tale of an underdog overcoming enormous odds. It’s that, too, considering that Papale, played by Mark Wahlberg, had the guts, or perhaps the desperation, to answer a call from the Philadelphia Eagles to show up for an open tryout for the team despite being 30, a bartender, and no experience playing ball since high school. Make no mistake, we are given all the usual tropes here, but instead of wallowing in a maudlin hagiography, there is a gritty earnestness and sense of desperate need, and not just Papale’s, that elevates this into a film that is about much more than sports or even succeeding. It is about giving people back their ability to dream.
Philadelphia in 1975 is a place of peeling paint, closed storefronts, unemployment, and factories going under. The Eagles loom large as something to talk about in order to NOT talk about the tough times, and a source of pride that Philadelphia can do something right. It hasn’t been right, though, for a long time. With a dismal record to overcome, the team’s owner takes a chance on a college coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, with suitably awful 70s hair) to turn the team around. Good luck. He announces open tryouts in order to generate some interest and good will, and no one is more surprised than he is that there is an actual prospect among the throngs who turn out. No one, except maybe Papale, who just lost his teaching job, whose wife has just left him, and is making ends meet working a few shifts at the bar run by his pal Max (Michael Rispoli). He wasn’t even going to show up, but in what sounds like a hackneyed plot device, but plays much more soulfully, it was his best friend, Tommy (Kirk Acevedo), who talked him into it not by playing up his skill as an athlete in their neighborhood games, but by talking about having something to hope for.
From there it’s Papale’s struggle to compete with the veterans on the team, who hate him, and the struggle to not fall for Janet (Elizabeth Banks) the new bartender at Max’s who is also Max’s cousin and a rabid New York Giants’ fan. That’s the framework, and cliché it is, but there is something about Walhberg pushing himself harder to overcome his insecurities than he does to tackle the other players that is compelling. The way he slowly gets back his fire in the belly while carrying the weight of all his pals’ hopes for him and for the team. This is not a smooth operator, cocksure and feisty. He plays it low key but intense, and never better than when he is sitting in his room at training camp, waiting for the knock on the door that tells him he’s been cut, the combination of dread and relief at getting it over with turning into relief as the knock doesn’t come, but with traces of dread lingering that it might come later.
The coach’s story, while smartly subordinate to Papale’s, is a piquant grace note to the rookie’s. Vermeil, too, is a rookie, too, and this is his shot at making the jump from college ball to the pros. What starts as a publicity stunt becomes a decision on which his entire future rests, a fact of which he is acutely aware. Kinnear’s boyish affability, even in anger, is an asset, making his questionable decision about taking on this rookie because he has heart seem reasonable, besides making him enormously likable. Also very likeable is director Ericson Core, who shows a restraint, even delicacy as he hones in on the heart of these characters, giving them a genuine nobility. He’s just as astute when he takes the audience right onto the field with Papale with a knockout immediacy. Keeping it all strictly from Papale’s point of view, the scattershot camera shots add up to awe and unreality punctuated with shouting and the thuds of being tackled that are visceral as well as visual.
INVINCIBLE isn’t just this year’s Disney feel-good, come-from-behind sports movie. It may be a cliché, but it’s true, it will make you want to stand up and cheer, even if you’re not a football fan.