The inspirational sports movie is a unique, confusing, cliched beast even on the best of days. They’re often dull and tired, but still deliver on an effective and wholesome message with a can do spirit and a positive attitude. When the Game Stands Tall is your basic high school sports lick that’s rigidly tied to genre conventions, which is somewhat refreshing since most of these films have become unruly character pieces instead of just sticking to the basics. Unfortunately, this film forgets about characters a bit too much.
It’s inspired by the true story of coach Bob LaDouceur (Jim Caviezel) and the De La Salle High School Spartans who hold the single longest winning streak in the history of organized football at any level. After amassing a whopping 151 game winning streak across 11 years, various tragedies strike: they lose a beloved teammate to gang violence, Coach has a heart attack, and the streak comes to an end in embarrassing fashion in a season opener. As the team stands on the brink of falling apart, these kids need to learn the value of teamwork, family and brotherhood before they become men.
Not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, When the Game Stands Tall manages to be entertaining despite its conventionality. Director Thomas Carter has a history working in the genre (with some success in 2005’s Coach Carter) and the narrative is more or less a copy and paste of every single sports movie that you’ve ever seen. Nothing new gets brought to the table, but it gets the job done and that’s somehow befitting of a film aimed at high schoolers. It’s well shot and the story leans on the faith based aspects of the school without getting too heavy handed or preachy. The script hammers home the basic precepts of organized sports (winning isn’t everything, teammates are family), but in the film’s biggest fault, none of the characters come across as individuals worth following around outside the team.
Jim Caviezel has never been able to carry a story as a leading man. His performance is a dud, cold and distant instead of rousing and inspiring. There are some interesting supporting characters that pick things up nicely. Alexander Ludwig who played the teams star running back and Clancy Brown as his overbearing dad steal the show with only a few all too brief moments to shine. Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis are great as the coach’s wife and the team’s assistant coach, but they don’t have much to do. It’s easy to give a damn about the games. It’s harder to give a damn about the people involved with it.
When the Game Stands Tall is indicative of a line that is said over and over in the film by the coaches: “We don’t expect you to play a perfect game, but we expect you to give the perfect effort”. While you can admire the intent of the message and of the storytellers this falls just short of the cinematic goal line. It sets out a list of goals and achieves them, but they were the wrong goals.