Over the past few years, Walt Disney Pictures has had considerable success with a small offering of inspirational, fact-based sports movies, including "Remember the Titans," "The Rookie," and "Miracle." Joining this roster of upbeat films is "Invincible," the true story of an unlikely Cinderella who rose from rock bottom to NFL glory. First-time movie director Ericson Core displays impressive competence with this biopic, carrying on the Disney tradition of providing wholesome entertainment, while steering clear of sugary sentimentality. Sheer filmmaking expertise also goes a long way in making this a memorable story that stands out among so many underdog films.
It is summer, 1976. Factory workers in South Philly are suffering through a recession. Having just lost his job and going through a messy divorce, 30-year-old Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) tends bar to make ends meet. His only source of recreation is an occasional game of street football with his equally hard-up friends. In a strangely macrocosmic parallel, the city's beloved Philadelphia Eagles are trudging through a major slump, losing games and fanfare with every endeavor. To pull the team out of their snowballing decline, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) is brought in as the new head coach. Out of desperation for some good publicity, Vermeil announces an open tryout in Philadelphia, hardly expecting anything of great significance to come out of it. Against his better judgment, Vince is persuaded by his friends to attend the tryout, deciding he has nothing more to lose.
Not surprisingly, the tryout attracts every former college athlete in the city, most of whom are grossly out of shape and far beyond their playing days. Only Vince manages to catch Vermeil's eye, running circles around the other men. Vince is invited to the official practices, becoming a local celebrity in the process, and faces a week-by-week challenge in proving himself and avoiding the cut list. He receives little support from the other, younger players on the team, who routinely harass him and work extra hard to get him cut from the lineup. With all odds against him, Vince turns from reluctant hero to determined fighter to prove his worth as a player and a person, a journey he never fathomed as a 30-year-old bartender.
In an arresting change of pace from the typical Disney movie, "Invincible" gives an unexpectedly low-key depiction of the main character's surrounding circumstances. The scenes in Vince's neighborhood are filmed in a near-monochromatic palette of yellows and browns and heavy shadows, subtly evoking a sense of looming despair and loss. The football scenes showcase a gorgeous array of bright colors that offset the bleak depiction of South Philly and create an element of fantasy, which they essentially are in Vince's mind. The details of Vince's disintegrating marriage and estranged relationship with his father (Kevin Conway), while not explored in great depth, are handled with sensitivity and honesty, such that they might need explaining for youngsters.
Mark Wahlberg gives an appropriately quiet, understated performance as Vince. He has the physicality necessary for his athletic character, but it is his facial muscles that are stretched most impressively, as he conveys a magnitude of emotions and insecurities with very few words. Wahlberg is an actor of great restraint, and in a genre that is often prone to broad characterizations, he is a breath of fresh air. Kevin Conway, in a small role, earns kudos for his deeply felt portrayal of Vince's troubled father. Once again, we learn more from what remains unspoken between the two, and their scenes together are some of the most effective.
Less effective is the subplot involving Dick Vermeil and his ongoing struggle to get the Eagles back on top. Greg Kinnear is solid and bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Vermeil, but his backstory is hopelessly artificial compared to the somber portrayal of Papale. What makes Vince's story work is the personal battle he must endure over the course of his journey. Vermeil, with a supportive wife and two cookie-cutter kids, lacks any hint of internal motivation to lead the team to victory and seems to exist solely to provide a convenient tie-in with the main story.
Still, the film is a winner because of its good intentions and production values. There is nothing here that we haven't seen before, but Papale's spirit (through Wahlberg's performance) drew me in and kept me invested the whole time. For me, the most satisfying moment was not the final football game at all, but Vince's return to his neighborhood playground for a nightly game with his friends. It serves as both a breakthrough and a triumph for them amidst the turmoil of their lives. The care put into the film to recreate the period, complete with a fantastic soundtrack of mid-70s music, is indicative of the filmmakers' genuine interest in the subject and person of Vince Papale. The rooting interest we develop in him goes beyond a mere liking of football, and I would venture to say that even viewers who do not care for the sport should find something to enjoy here. Best of all, it is wholesome for young viewers without pandering to them or becoming too saccharine.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment's DVD release includes a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks just beautiful. The smooth picture contains no artifacts or dirt, boasting a crisp, sharp image with excellent contrast and rich black levels. Skin tones look natural throughout. The brownish tones of the South Philly scenes come through with good clarity, while bold color saturation highlights the football scenes. Good, strong work from Disney.
Likewise, the sound given a strong presentation in a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. Dialogue and music are clear, with no distortion or hiss. The practice and game scenes benefit greatly from the surround sound, as the crowd cheering and noises of the players are sent out from the rear and center speakers to place you in the middle of the excitement. This one will give your subwoofer a small workout. A French 2.0 soundtrack is available as well, as are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
A pair of audio commentaries accompanies the film. The first is given by the real Vince Papale, producer Mark Ciardi, and writer Brad Gann. Papale owns this track, expressing his obvious passion about the movie. He seems genuinely moved by the whole experience, and hearing him comment on his own life and career is required listening if you love this movie. The second commentary features director Ericson Core and editor Jerry Greenberg. They talk a lot about the production and make interesting conversation. These are definitely top-notch extras, informative and enjoyable.
A 25-minute featurette, "Becoming Invincible: The Vince Papale Story," is the only other bonus. Featuring interviews with Papale and some of the filmmakers, this offers a nice overview of the career of our hero, making perhaps a few too many comparisons to "Rocky," but enlightening nonetheless. This is all pretty solid stuff for an endearing movie.
Though familiar and clichéd, "Invincible" succeeds in spite of itself because it is so technically well done and full of heart. Vince Papale's story is not unique, but we can all use a good underdog story from time to time. A strong cast makes the characters real before our eyes and helps us quickly join their team. Ericson Core has given the film a style and highly textured appearance that help bring to it the period flavor it needs. This is a highly entertaining and uplifting movie that the whole family can watch together and enjoy equally, and that alone is quite an achievement.