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Review: 'When the Game Stands Tall' is both an atypical and typical sports movie

The high school football saga "When the Game Stands Tall" fumbles around for a focus while Jim Caviezel offers the most low-key coach in history.

Jim Caviezel (with Michael Chiklis) is one chill football coach in "When the Game Stands Tall." Credit: Tracy Bennett Jim Caviezel (with Michael Chiklis) is one chill football coach in "When the Game Stands Tall."
Credit: Tracy Bennett

‘When the Games Stands Tall’
Director: Thomas Carter
Stars: Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig
Rating: PG
2 (out of 5) Globes

The high school football saga “When the Game Stands Tall” is not your typical sports saga. That doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s easy to make fun of this genre, with its often toxically sincere ode to sportsmanship, its unceasing motivational cliches and sweet musical scores that would make John Williams ill. This (of course) true(ish) story has all of these, but what it doesn’t have is a clear throughline. There’s not one hero, but a team, and it’s an ode to the power of the collective — both a team’s present and past players — over the individual. It’s vaguely Marxist, even if it stars a onetime Jesus.

The subject is the storied De La Salle High School football team, who hold the record for a streak with 151 wins. Watching players kick relentless butt wouldn’t be terribly exciting, and it’s not surprise when “When the Game Stands Tall” shows them losing. It takes awhile: One major reason given for a disastrous game is the illness of their coach, the legendary Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who suffered a massive stroke and was unable to join for most of pre-season training.

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Ladouceur talks a lot about the stresses of the job, but you’ll have to take his word for it. As portrayed by a seemingly doped-up Caviezel, he’s the most low-key coach in history. He never raises his voice to Pacino-esque growls, never manhandles a misbehaving player and never seems like he’s actually awake. Sometimes he looks taxidermied. It’s quiet intensity minus the intense part, and he seems to take no joy in life, which is odd since his wife is played by the reliably very much alive Laura Dern (giving another great performance in a nothing role in a film that never deserved it). She’s acting for two.

Noted hammy bad guy Clancy Brown plays the tyrannical father of one player (Alexander Ludwig) in "When the Game Stands Tall." Credit: Tracy Bennett Noted hammy bad guy Clancy Brown plays the tyrannical father of one player (Alexander Ludwig) in "When the Game Stands Tall."
Credit: Tracy Bennett

Caviezel also has Michael Chiklis, playing his assistant head coach, who’s there mainly for light comic relief. That’s good because the film is pretty dour and unfocused. Because the team’s glory is due to its past players, it includes some of them too, including one who is gunned down shortly before heading off to claim his scholarship. One of the two or three current players who stands out is Alexander Ludwig’s star running back — an intense guy saddled with a maniac football fanatic father played by Clancy Brown, who successfully adds some hammy danger to a film that’s all somber music alternated with bodies smashing together.

The football does look pretty great. Director Thomas Carter — who has done this thing before, with “Coach Carter” (no relation) — brings intensity to the gridiron scenes, from the bone crunches to the sweltering heat of the late summer California games. Carter doesn’t know how to build an entire game — it’s just quick blows, a couple tense moments, then off to celebrate. And because De La Salle quickly gets its groove back, it fumbles (if you will) for an ending, settling with a symbolic move that would only work if the character who does it wasn’t fictional. It lacks the embarrassing bits of films like “Remember the Titans,” but it’s mostly without highs.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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