I saw a couple of sports movies recently, one I liked and one I didn’t.
The didn’t was “DRAFT DAY,” a paean to one of sports’ most overblown annual events. Kevin Costner plays the harried GM of a fictionalized Cleveland Browns who, with screenwriters’ help, pulls off draft-day miracles to right his listing club. The National Football League must have loved the script because some of its officials appeared in it, including Commish Goodell, playing himself, of course. The real draft is a crapshoot but the movie treats it with the dead-pan seriousness the league applies to everything it does. Costner and cast earned their pay by keeping straight faces throughout the flick’s two hours of nonsense.
The one I liked was “RED ARMY,” a documentary about the USSR national hockey team that despite its “Miracle on Ice” loss to the U.S. in the 1980 Olympics probably was the best such squad ever assembled. The Soviet system of recruiting promising children and subjecting them to brutal training regimens in pursuit of adult excellence is well known, but director Gabe Polsky put flesh on the process by taking his cameras to present-day Russia and talking to the aging veterans who survived the ordeal and sometimes even prospered from it. The movie’s star is Vyacheslav Fetisov, the unit’s star defenseman, now 57 years old. Blunt, cynical and funny, his commentary illuminates not only Soviet hockey but life in general in the erstwhile peoples’ republic during the final years of Communist rule.
That I liked “Red Army” is unusual because I think most sports movies miss the mark. That’s mostly because film writers and directors feel obliged to substitute the ethos of the stage for that of the playing field, creating suspense by making every pivotal screen game come down to a last-of-the-ninth, two-outs, bases-loaded, score-tied situation, or its equivalent. Great moments in sports occur now and then, here and there; that’s why we’ll watch a mid-August baseball game between two going-nowhere teams. Sports’ dramatic impact owes mostly to its unscriptedness. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
That said, I’m immediately going to contradict myself with my No. 5 choice in my five-best sports-movies list. That would be “ROCKY” (1976), the Sylvester Stallone opus about the tomato-can boxer who gets it together to vie for the title.
“Rocky” and its successor films are hokey. Their fight scenes are the opposite of realistic, with more solid punches landed in any one round than in a whole month of actual fight cards. Every film in the series concludes with the hero triumphing or nearly so after taking enough punishment to kill an ox. Still, in Rocky Balboa writer-star Stallone created an archetypical underdog character strong enough to sustain a six-film run, and the flag-waving sock of the original turned the tide against the downer counterculture of the 1960s and early ‘70s.
My No. 4 film is a quite-different sort. “MAJOR LEAGUE” (1989) is by me the funniest sports film ever, one that tickles almost as much on fourth or fifth viewing as it did the first time. It’s an annual cable-TV staple around baseball opening day and, I hope, always will be.
The movie is about an ex-show girl who inherits the Cleveland Indians and designs them to bomb so she can break their lease and move them to Miami, something, by the way, LeBron James did by himself years later. Wouldn’t you know it, the Indians up and win, whackily. Charlie Sheen, the off-the-rails actor, was great as Ricky Vaughn, an off-the-rails relief pitcher. Wesley Snipes plays Willie Mays Hayes, who was so quick he could flick the switch and get in bed before the light went out. Dennis Haysbert, now a sober insurance-company mouthpiece, plays Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-practicing slugger, and Bob Uecker burlesques himself as broadcaster Harry Doyle. It’s a hoot! Every time I see a pitcher nearly throw one away I find myself saying “jusssst a little outside,” a la Harry.
“Major League” was played for laughs but my No. 3, “THE NATURAL” (1984), stirs the sense of myth that sports can evoke. The ethereal Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford), wielding his bat “Wonderboy” (i.e., Excalibur), is a hero of old who overcomes corruption and venality to vindicate himself and the game, and win his lady-in-white (Glenn Close). Baseball’s roots go deeper into American soil than those of any other sport, and this movie brilliantly taps them.
No. 2 is “RAGING BULL” (1980), which deals with the violence of boxing. Robert De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a real-life middleweight champion of the 1950s, whose turbulent nature finds an outlet in—but can’t be contained by—the ring. There’s blood in “Rocky” but it comes off as cartoonish. Not so in “Raging Bull,” whose slo-mo fight sequences makes one wince. Martin Scorsese directs this unsparing character study of a man who tries to punch his way out of his own skin.
My all-time favorite sports movie centers on an activity many don’t consider a sport. It’s “THE HUSTLER” (1961), which is about pool. It isn’t really about sports, it’s about winning and losing, measuring up and falling short, things that apply to any endeavor. That’s one reason it’s so good.
Directed in black and white by Robert Rossen (“Raging Bull” is in black and white, too), “The Hustler” has an acridly authentic script, a great cast of principals (Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Myron McCormick) and a raft of flavorful character actors. Its mandatory “big game” scene takes place not in a crowded arena but in a dim, near-empty pool hall, with the Newman-played hero capping his long road back by wearing down his nemesis, played by the superb Gleason. Such private victories are all most of us can muster.