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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Movie review: ‘When the Game Stands Tall’ falls short

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  • “When the Game Stands Tall” is less about football and more about family, faith and fellowship. Loosely based on the story of the De La Salle High School (Concord, California) football program and its record 151-game winning streak – the longest in all of sports history – the film is more “Secretariat,” less “Seabiscuit.” There is no grit.
    The players and their legendary coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), deserve material better than the cliche-ridden pap written by Scott Marshall Smith (“The Score”) and directed by Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter”). The pair outkick their coverage with a movie so weighed down in treacly cliches that you can finish the characters’ sentences. Fumbling more times than the Pats’ Stevan Ridley, they consistently mistake cloying melodrama for authenticity, and manipulate events for emotional effect so cavalierly that you wonder how much truth remains.
    For his part, Caviezel is the stoic but humble Ladouceur, coach and religion teacher. Football is a vehicle to teach his charges, many of them poor, how to be honorable young men. He preaches “perfect effort” from snap to whistle, and also in the game of life. Most of the film’s focus is what happens after the streak is broken and how the team gets its groove back. They must overcome the coach’s heart attack and the death of a beloved teammate. There’s also the business of letting down a town so obsessed with winning that even the mail carrier delivers his 49 cents worth to the coach. And where would we be without a star running back (Alexander Ludwig) closing in on the all-time scoring record while dealing with an abusive father (Clancy Brown)?
    After his health scare, Ladouceur experiences his own existential crises. “I’m a lie,” he tells his wife (a wasted Laura Dern), as his faith in the game and God is tested after one of his best players (Ser’Darius Blain) is gunned down. Plus, he’s got a strained relationship with his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), a starting wideout who keeps dropping passes. Says Danny: “The whole time I needed a father, I got a coach; and when I needed a coach, I got a lame dad.” To make matters even more dramatic, there’s another player (Stephan James) whose mother just died and another (Jessie Usher) whose swagger is a liability. The players are fighting on the practice field and dogging reps in the weight room. What’s a coach to do to bring his players back to earth and refocus on the prize? Bring them to a VA hospital to spend an inspiring day with wounded warriors, of course! Turns out, it’s one of the movie’s more genuine scenes.
    Per usual in football movies, there are bone-crushing hits, acrobatic catches and cameos from gridiron notables like Maurice Jones Drew and LSU coach Les Miles, and plenty of Dick’s Sporting Goods screen time.
    Page 2 of 2 - De La Salle went from top dog to underdog and in the film’s climactic game, it clashes with the No. 1 team in the country, Long Beach Polytechnic. “It no longer about who’s bigger, stronger or faster. It’s who has more heart.” Right. And there’s no “I” in team, either. Character counts, too. Also, don’t give up. Sure, the movie tackles a compelling story and the message of the movie scores points, but the execution of the game plan never gains ground.
    WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL
    (PG for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking.)
    Cast includes Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis, Jessie Usher. Grade: C+
    ——
    Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

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