Category Archives: Football Movies

Gus (1976)

gus

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mule becomes a kicker.

The California Atoms are the worst team in football and their owner Hank Cooper (Ed Asner) is desperate to try anything in order to get them winning and fans back into the seats. His secretary Debbie (Louise ‘Liberty’ Williams) reads an article about a mule living in Yugoslavia that is able to kick soccer balls at a long distance. He decides to have the animal and its owner Andy (Gary Grimes) shipped all the way from there to the United States where they hope to have the mule try out as a field goal kicker for the team. Since the rule book never specifically states that the players must be human they figure they can get away with it and do. The team starts to win again and Gus is a fan favorite, but mobster Charles (Harold Gould) doesn’t like it and hires two bumbling crooks (Tom Bosley, Tim Conway) to kidnap the animal, so he won’t be able to show up when the team plays in the all-important Superbowl.

Although as a kid I found this film to be enjoyable as an adult it comes off as boring and lacking. The idea that simply adding in a mule to kick long field goals would be enough to turn around a team’s dismal fortunes is highly suspect. For one thing a long distance field goal kicker will kick the ball at a much lower trajectory in order to get it to travel farther and thus the potential to block those kicks is much higher and yet for some reason that never occurs with any of Gus’s kicks, but most likely would. Also, just having a good kicker who can make field goals does not improve the defense that still must stop the other team from scoring. This team was described as getting blown out of every game that they were in, so how then does the defense start magically keeping the other team’s offense in check, so that the games remained manageable and Gus’s field goals would mean something?

The viewer never gets to see Gus kick an actual field goal anyways. What we see instead is the animal kick the ball and then the camera immediately cuts to a superimposed ball floating in the air with a corny sound effect tacked on and then another cut showing it gliding through the goal posts, but never an unedited long shot, which proves most likely no animal would be able to do the feat in real-life or able to do it in a consistently accurate way.

The comical elements aren’t too great either with the two best moments coming from a chase through a hospital as well as another one inside a grocery store, but even here there are problems. For one thing the super market chase, where Bosley and Conway try to corral the animal, goes on way too long and most likely the security or police would’ve been called in long before many of the antics that do occur would’ve happened. There’s also a tacky ‘life lesson’ thread thrown in dealing with Andy learning to have self-confidence, which does nothing but make the film seem even more contrived than it already is.

This marks Grimes’s last film to date as he ended up retiring from movies at the young age of 21 even though his career started off so promisingly with his starring role in Summer of ’42. He stated that the roles he was being offered were no longer up to his standards, but most likely studios were realizing that his acting abilities were limited and it was either get into another line of work, or be relegated to B-movie hell afterwards and his transparent presence here more than proves that.

Asner is the real star and has a few funny lines. I also enjoyed football legend Dick Butkus playing the role of a jealous boyfriend. His acting isn’t exactly good, but his constant expressions of aggravation are fun. Bob Crane in a brief bit manages to be a scene stealer as an obnoxious sportscaster who won’t stop talking until he finally loses his voice.

Kids may take to this more, but even then I’m not so sure as many of them may find it dated in a film that unfortunately can’t stand up to the test of scrutiny or time.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 7, 1976

Runtime: 1Hour 37Minutes

Rated G

Director: Vincent McEveety

Studio: Buena Vista Distribution Company

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Split (1968)

the split

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Robbery during football game.

Since today is Superbowl Sunday I wanted to come up with a film from the 60’s with some sort of football theme and decided to dig this one out of the obscure pile that has just recently been released onto DVD through the Warner Archive label. The film has two special distinctions. For one it is the first movie to ever get an R rating under the MPAA’s then new rating system. It also shows scenes from two actual football games. The first one is a game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Atlanta Falcons that was played on December 3, 1967 and won by the Rams 20 to 3. The second game shown was one played a week later between the Rams and the Green Bay Packers where the Rams also prevailed by a score of 27 to 24.  Both games were played at the L.A. Coliseum with the plot of this movie taking place at another part of the stadium during these games although it is clear that the scenes involving the actors was done on a studio soundstage.

The story, which is based on a novel by the prolific Donald E. Westlake, involves a group of criminals who pull of a daring robbery during the football game, but when it comes to splitting up the money things go awry and they are soon turning on each other.

The crime itself isn’t all that interesting and tends to be a bit plodding with a minimum of suspense. Having things go wrong at the end and the group start turning on each other is redundant since they had been bickering amongst themselves from the very beginning. The characters are all unlikable making it hard for the viewer to get wrapped up into the plight of which of them gets the dough and which doesn’t. Personally I was hoping they would all just get killed off and no one would get any money because their constant yelling and fighting quickly becomes tedious and tiring.

The film’s one main highlight is a fight between Jim Brown and Ernest Borgnine, which carries the novelty of the fact that the two had a similar type of confrontation just a year earlier in the film Ice Station Zebra. Here, like in that film, Borgnine seems to get the best of Brown, which doesn’t make any sense because Brown was athletic, muscular and twenty years younger. There is also a scene where Borgnine puts his fist through a picture on the wall and shatters the glass. However, not only does he not wince in pain, which would be expected, but it somehow doesn’t even cause him to bleed.

Brown can sometimes be good in certain supporting roles, but as a leading man he can’t carry the picture. His facial expressions make him look like he is almost bored and just walking through the role. I know he was a great Hall of Fame running back, but that doesn’t mean he will turn into a great actor and casting him in lead roles of major studio pictures seemed awfully risky.

Warren Oates is terrific as always in a supporting role as one of the group’s henchmen. Donald Sutherland is also really good as another member of the group. I loved his Cheshire cat-like grin as well as his bowl haircut that gives him a creepy look. Julie Harris also sports a different style of hairdo from her usual short cut and she looks attractive as well as being near perfect in her part as an icy cold bitch that has no qualms about torturing a man to death in order to find her money.

SPOILER ALERT!

One of the biggest problems I had with the film was a plot twist that should have made it more interesting. It involves the James Whitmore character who plays the landlord of Diahann Carroll who is Brown’s girlfriend and hiding the stolen money in her apartment. Whitmore enters her place when she is alone and tries to rape her. Seeing an old wrinkled guy attacking a hot young black woman is wild in itself, but he also finds a machine gun in her dresser and holds it like he is masturbating with it and spews its bullets into her body like it is his ejaculation, which I found to be edgy and cool. He also finds the money and takes it for himself while making an anonymous phone call to the police to implicate Brown as the killer. However, when the police detective played by Gene Hackman investigates the case they quickly find out it was the landlord who did it, but it was never explained or shown how they came this conclusion as well as the fact that they end up killing him, which is completely glossed over and mentioned just briefly when the other characters read about it the next day in the newspaper. To me this created a major plot hole that needed to be filled.

The film also has a twist ending that doesn’t work and is very confusing. It happens as Brown is walking through the airport at the end with his share of the money and he hears what sounds like Diahann Carroll’s voice calling his name and he turns around with a shocked expression before the frame freezes and cuts to the credits. However, Carroll’s character was clearly killed and Brown saw the dead body, so how did she come back to life? Some viewers have stated that they think the voice was all inside Brown’s head, but that still needs to be explained and would normally prove frustrating to the viewer, but since the film is so bland it really doesn’t matter.

I feel I am being very generous in giving this picture 5 points, but the direction is fast paced and nicely compact and the jazzy Quincy Jones score is groovy. However, it certainly isn’t worth missing the big game for, nor any other game for that matter.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: November 4, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated R

Director: Gordon Flemyng

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD (Warner Archive), Amazon Instant Video

Wildcats (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Goldie coaches boy’s football.

Due to football season starting on Wednesday I have decided to incorporate a football themed movie for today’s 80’s movie review. It is story about a divorced mother of two (Goldie Hawn), who coaches a high school girl’s track team, but decides she wants to live out her dreams by coaching football instead. Unfortunately the only football job she can find is with a losing boys’ team in a tough inner-city high school.

This is a very uninspired, by the numbers ‘feel good’ sports movie. There actually seems to be more drama than comedy and what little comedy you get really isn’t very funny. Having a woman coach a boy’s football team would be enough of a challenge, but forcing her to do it in a tough inner-city school seems unnecessary. The players are one-dimensional and uninteresting. Even Hawn’s character is dull although Hawn herself is still engaging. The climactic game sequence is so predictable and full of clichés that it becomes almost excruciating to sit through. The film is also plagued by having that annoying 80’s music sound.

On the plus side I found it fun to watch Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in their film debuts. It is also great to see Nipsey Russell although they don’t give him enough to do. He looks like he was only 38 even though, at the time, he was actually 68!  Thad Thacker who is very large physically is amusing and the only interesting player on the whole team. His acting is nothing exceptional, but his ‘con-man’ routine has its moments. Actor James Keach, who plays the stereotypical ‘jerky’ ex-husband, ends up giving a surprisingly sturdy performance.

Overall the film is dull and predictable and hardly good for even a few cheap laughs. Why some people think this is so funny is beyond me because everything that is done here has been done better somewhere else.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 14, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 46Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Ritchie

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Number One (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Heston plays a quarterback.

            Ron Catlan (Charlton Heston) is an aging quarterback for the New Orleans Saints football team. At one time he was the best in the league and even won a championship, but now at age 40 his skills are declining and there’s a second string quarterback eager to take his place yet Ron isn’t emotionally ready to move on from the game even though he knows he should.

This is the type of film that gives dramas a bad reputation. The dialogue and scenarios are soap opera like. A few amusing bits would have helped eleviate an otherwise relentlessly downbeat tone. The same basic issue gets talked about and discussed over and over again until it is nauseating. There is no beginning middle and end to this thing. The storyline is introduced right from the start and then goes nowhere with it. The pacing is unbearably slow with no action and conversations that are general in nature and have no verve. The brief cutaways that are used are heavy handed and add nothing.

Heston looks goofy in a Saints helmet. Apparently he was unable to throw the ball accurately, or at a long distance, so they were forced to show a close-up of him going through the throwing motion, but then cut to a long shot of a professional player completing the throw, which becomes obvious and tacky looking. He also has the same grouchy expression on his face the whole time and the character is unlikable and uninteresting. The viewer never becomes emotionally caught up in his plight and it surprised me that the filmmakers ever thought that they would.

The climactic sequence consists of Catlan being hit by three Dallas Cowboy players, which injuries him enough to end his career. The intention was to make this stark and jarring for the viewer and the image of him lying on the field can be seen on the film’s promotional poster as seen above.  Supposedly the actual hit done during filming was so violent that it ended up cracking three of Heston’s ribs. However, capturing the hit and making the intended impact on the viewer is botched. The edits are too fast and it goes by so quickly that it doesn’t seem like a big deal when you see it. Most people will see similar types of hits during actual games while watching them on a regular Sunday. If anything the scene should have been done in slow motion and I am not sure why it wasn’t since other segments of the football action was.

The music choice was another mistake. I realize that the setting is New Orleans and in order to help create the ambience of the city director Tom Gries decided to give the film a jazz score and even has jazz legend Al Hirt make a cameo appearance, but the soft, light, laid back jazz sound does not coincide with the hard hitting and high adrenaline elements of the game.

Bruce Dern is terribly wasted. The women seem to give stronger performances than their male counterparts, but the movie is so bad as a whole that it hardly seems to mean anything.

The Saints seemed to be an odd choice as the football team since they had become an expansion team only two years prior to this film being made. I like the team’s unique colors and logo, but in the movie Catlan has supposedly won a championship with the team in prior years, which doesn’t make sense if one knows the team’s history.

I wrote previously in this column that The Longest Yard may very well be the best football movie ever made and if that is the case then this film is clearly the worst one. This film even makes the actual game itself and the action shown on the field seem boring and uninspired.

My Rating: 0 out of 10 

Released: August 21, 1969

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated M

Director: Tom Gries

Studio: United Artists

Available: None

The Longest Yard (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Prisoners play football game.

            Burt Reynolds is Paul Crewe a down-on-his-luck former professional football player who was kicked out of the league due to a point shaving scandal. After going on a long car chase with police he is thrown into the Georgia State Penitentiary where the crooked warden (Eddie Albert) tries to get him to coach the prison football team. Initially he refuses, but after some ‘convincing’ he eventually agrees to play in one game that will feature the guards versus the inmates. The prisoners use this contest as a way to get back at the guards and their brutal treatment of them while the guards approach it as a way to instill their authority.

Some consider this one of the best sports movies of all-time and I would have to agree it is up there. One of the things I liked about the movie is the way it taps into the emotional aspect of not only playing the sport, but watching it. There can be deep seated psychological reasons for why a spectator, or fan, roots for one team over the other.  The prisoners that cheer on their team use the game, as fleeting as it may be, as a sort of equalization and revenge factor to the guard’s authority and corruption. Watching the scenes showing the prisoners cheering their team as they score a touchdown is almost as emotionally charging as the action itself.  Director Robert Aldrich does a great job of using the prison setting and the game as a microcosm of 70’s society and the conflict between the counter-culture and the establishment as well as the haves and have-nots.

The game is nicely choreographed.  The hits look real and the plays are shot in a bird’s eye view just like watching an actual game on TV. The action is easy to follow and it is evident that the filmmakers have a good understanding and appreciation for the sport.  Outside of the final play that is done in slow motion there is none of the fluky, theatrical stuff thrown in that you usually see in most other films of this type. I found myself getting emotionally tied into the action even though I had seen the film many times before.

The only misgiving I had was the segment where the Richard Kiel character slams an opposing player to the ground and announces “I think I broke his fucking neck.” Of course this has become one of the film’s most popular lines and is made funnier when other players and even the game announcer repeats it several more times, but when the injured player is unable to come-to even after being given smelling salts and is carted off motionless from the field it starts to seem cruel to be laughing.

Another scene that I found surprising and had almost as much impact as the climatic contest is at the very beginning when Paul is shown arguing with his girlfriend Melissa (played by Anitra Ford one of the original models on ‘The Price is Right’ game show). She calls him a whore, which has to be the first and only time in film history that a woman has called a man that, but what is even more amazing is when he violently slaps her and knocks her to the floor.  I don’t think I can remember another time where a protagonist male character has done that to a female and yet the audience is still expected to sympathize with the male, which is interesting. The ensuing car chase is one of the better ones you’ll see and the part where he drives the car into a lake while the song ‘Saturday Night Special’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing on the car’s radio and gets muffled as it goes under the water is cool.

Burt is perfect for the role. I love the glib way he delivers his lines and his laid back persona. The fact that he is an anti-hero with obvious personal flaws makes him even more fun. He seems right at home in the southern setting and filming it at an actual state prison gives the film a nice gritty subtext.

The supporting cast is unique. John Steadman as Pop, one of the prison’s oldest members, is memorable and he is the only other actor with a nose big enough to rival that of Karl Malden’s. It is nice to see Richard Kiel, one of the tallest actors you will ever see, with a speaking role.  The part where he starts to cry when he gets hit in the nose is funny.  Charles Tyner is perfectly creepy as Unger and Michael Conrad is compelling in his role as Nate Scarboro. This is also a great chance to see Bernadette Peters in an early career role as the warden’s ditzy and amorous secretary Miss Toot. She wears one of the worst looking beehive hairdos you’ll ever see although there probably isn’t a beehive hairdo that looks good anyways. Former football player Joe Kapp is good as one of the evil guards.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 30, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 1Minute

Rated R: (Adult Theme, Language, Violence)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix Streaming

Johnny Be Good (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: College recruiters are sleazy.

            Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall) is a star high school quarterback who finds that during his senior year he is being bombarded by college recruiters who try any means, legal, or otherwise, to get him to come to their school. Johnny enjoys taking advantage of it, which consists of going to their campuses and being lavished with parties, women, money, and other gifts. His girlfriend Georgia (Uma Thurman) doesn’t approve as she is afraid he may be tempted to cheat on her.

In some ways this is an interesting idea as the topic of college recruiting and some of the corruption that goes along with it has not been presented in any detailed fashion in too many other films, so it seems fresh. The film starts out as very farcical and humorous showing all these middle-aged men dressed like Herb Tarlek from WKRP in Cincinnati  slobbering over Johnny wherever he goes and promising him just about anything. The film though switches gears awkwardly. The majority of it is crude and adolescent, but then turns into a serious and preachy morality tale at the end. This uneven approach doesn’t work as the goofy comedy is so over-the-top that any attempt at seriousness is lost. It would have worked better and been more riveting had it been presented as a drama.

The comedy isn’t all that hilarious either. There are some amusing bits here and there, but most of it falls flat. Even the film’s best comic moment gets botched. It entails Johnny being lead onto a platform on the field’s fifty yard line by a recruiter’s attractive, sexy wife who tries to get him to have sex with her.  Some of the other people at the party follow them and project their antics onto the stadium’s scoreboard. Unfortunately Johnny resists and ends up running away even though I thought it would have been a lot funnier seeing them actually having sex. I suppose the filmmakers feared that audiences would not want their hero cheating on his girlfriend, but if you spend time setting up a wild scenario then you need to go for the gusto.

This also brings up another problem with the movie, which is that all the nudity, at least in the theatrical 84 minute version I saw, is cut out. Apparently there is an R-rated version available with more nudity intact, but why cut it out to begin with? This film’s sophistication level is extremely low and typically when the script consists of nothing more than crude comedy the nudity at least helps.

The third problem with the film is that the adults are portrayed as being so stupid that they seem almost inhuman. I know it became trendy during the teen movies of the 80’s to show adults and other authority figures as being clueless, unhip, and basically just plain out-of-it, but this film goes too far with it. Georgia’s parents are particularly irritating. The casting of Marshall Bell as Georgia’s overly authoritative father was a mistake as he looks and behaves too much like Paul Gleason, who plays the coach.

Hall is okay in the lead, but the part where he is sitting in his room playing on his drums even though his drumsticks never makes contact with any of them while looking at football highlights on the TV is annoying. For one thing the look on his face makes it appear that he is in some sort of trance and the scene goes on too long and then gets shown again during the end credits.

Although the part is not very demanding it is still fun to see Thurman in an early role as the girlfriend. Robert Downey Jr. is also amusing in an early role as Johnny’s best friend although he looks pudgy and out-of-shape and not in condition for playing football. His father Robert Downey Sr. appears as an investigator.

By far and away the best part in the film is Paul Gleason as the high strung coach Hisler. He plays an extension of the part that he did in The Breakfast Club   and is even more hyped-up. He steals every scene he is in and is the most memorable thing about the film and helps save it from being a complete disaster.

Legendary sports announcer Howard Cosell appears as himself in a couple of amusing cameos, which is fun, but his hand shakes so much as it is holding the telephone receiver that he is talking into that it becomes distracting. Former Chicago Bears quarterback also appears as himself, but most young football fans today probably won’t even know who he is.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: March 25, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes (R version) 1Hour 24Minutes (PG-13 version)

Director: Bud S. Smith

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix streaming

Semi-Tough (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Got to go pee.

            Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and Marvin Tiller (Kris Kristopherson) are two players for the Miami football team who just happened to live with the daughter of the team’s owner Barbra Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh). Strangely enough they do not have sexual relations and despite seeming like an odd arrangement to others the three manage to get along just fine until Marvin proposes to Barbra, which starts to make Billy jealous. Billy then spends the rest of the time trying to win her over and break-up the impending marriage.

This movie, based on the novel by Dan Jenkins, has an interesting premise, but I was disappointed that it didn’t start from the beginning when the three met and started rooming together. It certainly seemed to be an unusual set-up and I wanted more background to these characters and a history and the film doesn’t give any making it incomplete. The plot itself is a bit under-developed and at times seems to have nowhere to go. To make up for it the film delves into some odd comic scenarios that have nothing to do with the characters, or story. Some of these are interesting on their own terms while the others fall flat.

One of these segments features silent film actress Lotte Lenya in her last film appearance. Today’s audiences will know her for her outstanding performance as the villainess Rosa Klebb in the James Bond classic From Russia with Love. Her she plays a massage therapist named Clara Pelf who has some really weird and painful ideas about physical therapy. The scene seems just thrown in there for its own sake and doesn’t do much for the film as a whole, but seeing Lotte banter with Burt is a lot of fun regardless.

Another and even more bizarre segment features Bert Convy as a motivational speaker who hosts a marathon 48 hour self-help seminar, but will not allow any member of the audience to get up and go to the bathroom for the first 12 hours, which seemed too implausible even for satire. However, this scene does feature the film’s best line and quite possibly one of the best lines in film history, which occurs when one of the female members of the audience gets up and states in front of everyone “I just peed in my pants and it feels great!”

The football scenes don’t gel and in fact I wouldn’t even categorize this as a sports movie, or even a football one. For one thing director Michael Ritchie and writer Walter Bernstein didn’t seem to put much thought, or research into the sport, or how teams function. This becomes obvious in the segment where the players are shown staying up late and drinking at a bar the night before a big game and even bringing women back with them to their hotel rooms without having any type of curfew. There is another scene featuring Brian Dennehy as a big, intimidating player T.J. Lambert who dangles a woman off a roof and threatens to drop her when she does not give-in to his kinky sexual demands. He does this in front of the rest of the team who laugh it off like it is no big deal and state that he does it frequently when in reality the man would probably have a lot of lawsuits on his hands, jail time, and league suspension. It also paints big players too much as a stereotype and being nothing more than dumb out-of-control morons bordering on sociopathic.

The team logos and uniforms worn by the players during the games are unimaginative. The ones worn by the players representing the Denver team in the movie look almost exactly like the Texas Longhorns and I am almost surprised that they didn’t sue.

Burt of course is highly engaging throughout. The guy has terrific comic timing and I love the way he delivers his humorous lines. It is his presence alone that really makes this movie work. My only problem with his casting was that he was forty at the time and looking just a wee bit too old for the part. His hair also resembles a toupee and I don’t know of any player in football history who smokes a long pipe, or listens to Gene Autry records. What is worse is that he plays a lot of Gene’s records and forces the viewer to have to listen to the tunes although he makes up for it a bit with his Gene Autry quotes, which are funny.

Kristopherson as an actor has never connected with me even though I love him as a singer/songwriter. In the movies I have seen him in he always seems either half-a-sleep, or stoned. His presence and delivery is too laid back for my tastes however, the part where he is shown half-naked in bed and doing a commercial for a deodorant and then uses the product to create a mock erection is great.

Clayburgh is passable as the female lead, but I didn’t like her southern accent.  Robert Preston, who plays her father and the team owner, is okay, but his role is rather meaningless. The scene showing him crawling around on his office floor is stupid and pointless.

For some reason, despite certain flaws and an overall superficial treatment I still enjoyed this movie and found it entertaining. This is a great example of a 70’s romance with all the expected elements and clichés nicely put in place. It is also a chance to see Ron Silver in an early role as the team’s kicker who has no lines of dialogue, but ends up being a scene stealer anyways.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 18, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Ritchie

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD (Widescreen Edition)

North Dallas Forty (1979)

north dallas forty

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Ugly side of football.

From the very first frame this film grabs your attention. We see football wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) sleeping in his bed with blood spewing out of his nose and soaking his pillow in red. He wakes up and ambles his way to the bathroom looking like a man of 80 instead of 30. We come to realize that his nose is broken and he sleeps with tissue stuffed up his nostril to keep it from bleeding worse than it really does. We soon learn that this is all part of the business. A player is expected not only to play with pain, but live with it as well. Watching Nolte deal with this is so convincing that it will make you feel like you’re having the same symptoms and bring back vivid memories of any physical discomfort that you once had. It gets so bad that when he is making love to his girlfriend he is having to tell her to switch positions, or not touch certain parts of his body because even sex ends up being too painful. When you read about how many players suffer from lifelong injuries from their playing days you feel almost insulted at how other sports movies seem to gloss over it like it is no big deal when it really isn’t.

The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Peter Gent, who once played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Although fictionalized to a certain extent one can’t help but see the ugly truth seeping through. Many of the characters closely resemble star Cowboy players from that era including the Mac Davis character Seth Maxwell who has the same personality as real-life quarterback Don Meredith.  There is also B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin) who resembles legendary coach Tom Landry. Like Landry he seems devoutly religious and even quotes scripture, but he also is very cold, calculating, and psychologically manipulative.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film and found it riveting from beginning to end. If only all films could be this revealing and honest. The ‘feel good sports movie’ can be nice, but it is becoming too much of a cliché. Most players that get into the business don’t win Superbowls, or championships. They becomes used and abused by a relentless system until their only goal is simple survival and trying not to be cut. Of course I have never played football, but I don’t think the viewer really has to, to appreciate the dead-on truth that is displayed here. Simply being out in the ‘real world’ and working in corporate America should be enough for just about anyone to connect to what the characters here go through.

The dialogue is exceptional and endlessly quotable. Every scene and conversation dissects another ugly side of the business. Some of it is expected, but other parts become rather startling particularly the way players are pushed to play with injuries in order to ‘help the team’ even if there is a strong possibility that it could cause serious and permanent harm.  Some may say things have gotten better, or worse since this was made, but I can’t help but feel that if anything it pretty much the same in a lot of ways, which is why I still maintain that this film is quite possibly the best sports movie ever made.

You also gotta love Charles Durning as the assistant coach constantly carrying with him a bottle of Maalox and looking like the one doing most of the coaching and disciplining while coach Strother stands at a calculated distance. The scene where Durning screams at the players during a team prayer giving in the locker room by a priest is the film’s single most funniest moment. Bo Svenson has one of his best roles playing the very large and intimidating player who goes from being obnoxious and even frightening at parties to looking dumb, confused, and even scared during the games. The only actor I wasn’t impressed with was John Matusek, who was a real-life pro player for a while. It was nice seeing a well-built actor to compliment Svenson, but Matusek just does not have the ability to deliver his lines with any dramatic impact and the fiery tirade that gives Durning at the end fails to be as strong as it should’ve been.

The only other problem I had with this film is the scenes involving the actual game itself. It doesn’t in any way resemble a pro game. The field is small and looks like it was shot at a high school. The crowd is darkened out, looking like there were no spectators at all. I also didn’t like the way director Ted Kotcheff incorporated dramatic music during certain key segments. It came off as heavy-handed and unnecessary. Of course the team’s uniforms and logos look tacky and although this is a little distracting you can’t blame this on the filmmakers as the NFL refused to endorse the film because of its frank nature.

This film hasn’t mellowed at all with age and I was surprised how potent it still is. I would recommend this to anyone, sports fan, or not, who wants to see the game from a different perspective by a player who was there.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 3, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Paper Lion (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Scrawny guy plays quarterback.

            Lighthearted adaptation of George Plimpton’s best-selling novel detailing his account of playing for the Detroit Lions football team as a back-up quarterback despite having no real experience.  Alan Alda plays Plimpton and the movie’s main focus is during the team’s training camp and his shock at just how hard and rigorous being a pro-quarterback really is.

The film’s most amusing moments come during the many weeks of practice when Plimpton finds that even throwing a pass is difficult because the defenders are so quick that they are in his face and have him on the ground before he is even able to react. Even taking a hand-off from his center proves to be a difficult process as it jams his thumb. Director Alex March does a fine job of giving the viewer a feeling of Plimpton’s experience by having the defenders come barreling towards the camera until you feel like you’ve been tackled yourself.

What makes the story interesting is the fact that despite being an intellectual man from Harvard Plimpton still ends up having the same competitive spirit as the rest of the players. He becomes determined to prove himself by memorizing the playbook and practicing until he is able to function decently in the position. He even finds himself getting into a potential fist-fight with another man at a bar when the man makes a disparaging remark about the team.  Although the players quickly realize that he is not a legitimate athlete and try to scare him away they become impressed enough with his perseverance and fiery spirit to eventually be willing to play for him, which is a nice touch.

The cast is loaded with actual players and coaches incluing: John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Alex Karras, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roger Brown, Frank Gifford and the then head coach Joe Schmidt. All of them are given a lot of screen time and a surprising amount of lines. Despite what one may think they do an exceptionally good job. They are likable and believable especially coach Schmidt. In fact it is their presence that really helps make the movie succeed and gives the viewer the impression that they are experiencing the NFL as it is, or at least as it was at that time. There is even a segment featuring legendary coach Vince Lombardi, which is special.

Probably the only character that I felt wasn’t necessary was Lauren Hutton as Plimpton’s super-hot model girlfriend.  Now, I have never read the book, so I am not sure if Plimpton had an attractive girlfriend in real-life, or not, but the character here seemed to be put in for eye candy and added little if anything to the story.

The footage shown of an actual exhibition game that the Lions play against the St Louis Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium is vivid. So many times film of this nature will borrow footage from another source and then incorporate it in, but the grainy film stock always makes this evident and distracting and here that wasn’t the case. The camera gets right down on the field with the players and you see the plays and hits up close. You even hear the trash talk and a bit of cursing although they do edit some of that out.

The film’s drawback is that it is too serene for its own good. There is never any dramatic tension, or conflict. The pace and music is so easy going that at times it seems ready to put you to sleep. The film had the backing of the league, which I felt ended up compromising it. Some of the harsher ugly elements of football boot camp were clearly glossed over. I would have wanted something a little bit meatier, even if it had been for a only a few brief scenes. The film hasn’t particularly aged well. The ‘big’ players of yesteryear look rather puny by today’s standards. The game and conditioning has evolved a lot and I felt this story should be revisited in the modern day setting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 23, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alex March

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, Netflix streaming

The Best of Times (1986)

best of times

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10 

4-Word Review: Play the game over.

            Robin Williams plays Jack Dundee, a man who on November 15, 1972 dropped a sure touchdown pass in a football game with their chief rival Bakersfield. Now, 13 years later, he still dwells on it all the time and even watches old film footage of it in his basement. He becomes obsessed with playing the game again with all of the same players. The problem is that most everyone has moved on including their star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) who is now working as a local car mechanic due to a knee injury that he suffered during that game. Jack persists and eventually gets a game scheduled, but that proves to be only part of the battle.

The script, by Ron Shelton, has an interesting point that could touch anybody. Who out there doesn’t want to go back and relive some past mistake, or regret, and make it better? The fact that he also lives in a small town and is constantly being reminded of it hits home as well. I was born and raised in a small, Midwestern town, so I know it can be hard to live down certain things. So, in context, it is a great theme. As people age and fall into a dull routine of a dead-end job and marriage it is sometimes an event that happened to them when they were younger that matters and in that capacity it is a great idea.

The problem is that the execution of it is contrived and dull. The first 45 minutes are spent with endless conversations of the ‘dropped pass’ that goes nowhere. Some of the psychological tactics that Jack uses to motivate not only his teammates and those from the other team into playing the game is somewhat interesting, but not terribly funny. In fact there is very, very little in this movie that is funny, or even halfway creative for that matter. It seems to be nothing more than the regurgitated ‘feel good sports formula’ that has been done a million times before without adding anything new. The final game sequence has all the expected clichés and what should be exciting and thrilling becomes boring and tiresome. I was almost hoping that Jack would drop the damn thing again when he had his second chance, which gets shown in annoyingly slow motion, as it would have been funnier and if anything given us some sort of surprise as everything else is painfully predictable.

The only time this movie that gets even slightly amusing, and I do emphasize amusing as there is nothing in here that is at any time hilarious, is when they bring back all the old players who are now middle-aged and out-of-shape and try to hold a practice. Having now grown to middle-age myself I can say succinctly that you can’t go back again even if you want to and the movie brings this up in some of the vignettes, but then doesn’t go far enough with it.  Instead, just as the film should be gaining some sort of momentum, it gets bogged down with a meandering segment involving the men trying to reconcile with their wives after some inconsequential tiff.

There is also the fact that if someone who has not moved on in their life and dwells on something as much as Jack does than in most cases would be unable to have long-term relationships with other people, or even hold down jobs. Yet here our hero is in a pretty good marriage and a cushy job. It would have been more interesting and probably funnier had the Jack character been a crook, or living on the absolute fringes of society and not been able to adjust to life until he had a second chance at the catch. Of course this would have been considered too ‘edgy’ by most Hollywood producers and I’m sure test audiences of which Hollywood is very dependent on would not have approved, which probably explains why the character is so boringly normal.

For what it’s worth Williams gives an energetic and engaging performance. The character is not all that well developed, but Robin gives it some life and helps make the movie passable. Russell seems a bit a dull here despite being an always durable actor. I realize the character is a bit passive, but having him transform into an aggressive, angry leader at the end seemed forced and phony. I was also disappointed that legendary character actors appear here including Carl Ballantine, Dub Taylor, Kathleen Freeman, and R.G. Armstrong and are given nothing more than a line of dialogue a piece and in the case of Ballantine only one word, which seems outrageous.

I have nothing to recommend here. I am giving it two points simply because the production values are high enough that it doesn’t look amateurish, but the flat, slightly implausible storyline needs to be injected with some sort of originality. Even for fans of Williams I would say stay away from it as seeing him in such blah proceedings doesn’t make it worth it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video