3 stars (out of four)
In "Invincible," bartender-turned-Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale drives a tough, weather-beaten 1970s Chevy Nova. That's the sort of actor Mark Wahlberg is: a Nova.
You never know who's going to learn to listen to other people on screen, and commune with the camera without worrying about looking just so (or just so cool) every second. In other words you never know who'll develop into a good actor. Wahlberg, the former skivvies model with the c'mere/go away pout, has done it. He has been reliably strong for several movies now. While he's not the only thing right with this better-than-average inspirational sports movie, as Papale he sets a tone of hard-won confidence.
Much like the recent soccer film "Goal! The Dream Begins," "Invincible" has just enough human beings and semblances of human drama in it to sideline the cliches. Director and cinematographer Ericson Gore may use up his slo-mo quotient by the third reel. But then, a football film without a surfeit of slo-mo is like a cheesesteak without the cheese.
In 1976 the Eagles, like Philadelphia itself, needed help. Straight off a Rose Bowl win, UCLA coach Dick Vermeil took over the NFL franchise. He held open tryouts, drawing a wide variety of lifelong Eagles wannabes. One of them was Papale, a part-time teacher and part-time bartender. (For dramatic purposes, screenwriter Brad Gann downplays his collegiate athletic achievements.)
At the sly urging of his father (Kevin Conway) and a chorus of go-get-'ems from his junkyard-football pals, Papale shows up at the tryouts and slaughters everybody. He performs like a man who knows in his heart that someday, with the full cooperation and approval of the National Football League, Disney will make a movie based on his life and call it "Invincible."
The film glides along a well-greased track. Shrewish, short-tempered wife? No problem, she's out of the picture in plenty of time for Papale's romance with the lovely and patient and understanding bartender played by Elizabeth Banks. (She tells him she likes bartending because "it's like being back home, listening to my brothers argue.") Papale is deemed an Eagle, and the hopes of a heavily unemployed city, on the ropes in a bicentennial year, ride on a local boy's shoulders.
In real life Papale became a Cinderella man the same year as "Rocky" triumphed on movie screens. The film ends in 1976, though Papale played wide receiver for four seasons before a shoulder injury forced him to change careers. Screenwriter Gann and feature film directorial first-timer Core glance on the Rocky Balboa parallels. They also glance on some real-world issues: alcoholism, working-class socioeconomics, the strike down at the Westinghouse plant. The operative word is "glance." We're firmly in feel-good, triumph-of-the-human-spirit territory here.
The actors make it work. Greg Kinnear's Coach Vermeil exudes Southern California good vibrations without a lot of fuss or attitude. Paige Turco has a couple of effective scenes as Carol Vermeil, who gives Dick the strength and love it takes for him to do what is right for the Eagles, for himself and for America.
All the South Philly trappings are there: The cramped row-houses, the dingy bars, the "Rocky" echoes. "Invincible" features an astutely cast collection of neighborhood palookas, chief among them Kirk Acevedo (as Papale's friend Tommy, always there for him) and Dov Davidoff (Johnny, the lone dissenter and lush, who tells our hero that after his NFL fling he'll "still be nuthin'.") Wahlberg handles Papale and most of his own gridiron stunts with grace and ease. There's a sugar coating to the way Papale's story unfolds, but not so much that you'll spoil your dinner.
Directed by Ericson Core; screenplay by Brad Gann; cinematography by Core; edited by Jerry Greenberg; production design by Sarah Knowles; music by Mark Isham; produced by Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi and Ken Mok. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG (for sports action and some mild language).
Vince Papale - Mark Wahlberg
Dick Vermeil - Greg Kinnear
Janet - Elizabeth Banks
Frank Papale - Kevin Conway
Tommy - Kirk AcevedoCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times