Outside of humans invaded by body snatchers and presidents whose nations are threatened by an asteroid, has there been a more stoic big screen performance than Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur in “When the Game Stands Tall”?
The De La Salle High football coach and his Concord team’s struggles after ending a 151-game win streak are grist for a surprisingly moody and very solid sports film. More in the tone of the big screen “Friday Night Lights” than “Rudy” or “The Blind Side,” it succeeds as mainstream entertainment without relying on a conventional storybook framework.
Based on a book by former Contra Costa Times sports writer Neil Hayes, the film contains quite a few Hollywood compromises – including a couple of main characters who are flat-out made up to heighten the third act drama. And yet the movie remains relatable, bypassing most of the team’s historic athletic achievements, and exploring how champions deal with loss.
Shepherding the project with confidence is director Thomas Carter, whose experience with high school sports entertainment dates back to the late 1970s, when he played Hayward in TV’s “The White Shadow.” Carter also directed “Coach Carter,” which like “When the Game Stands Tall,” spends time on the tough streets of Richmond, Calif. “Game” is the more nuanced of the two movies, and by far a better piece of cinema.
The film begins at the end of De La Salle’s last undefeated season in 2003, showing both the spoils and the burden of what was simply called “The Streak.” After an inevitable loss, an unfair share of that burden falls on one group of athletes, including Ladouceur’s son Danny (Matthew Daddario) and fictitious team leader Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig). The coach faces additional challenges: health issues, distance from his family and the tragedy of real-life De La Salle murder victim Terrence Kelly.
Caviezel’s portrayal of Ladouceur borders on unintentional humor; for the first 38 minutes, before he breaks into a smile during a barbecue, he appears to be playing a Terminator. Tensions between father and son seem forced and illogical. And a subplot involving Chris Ryan and his ridiculously overbearing dad is included only so the movie can have a villain.
But the greater narrative always remains on track, often leading to unexpected places. Carter and his solid film crew use hand-held camera techniques during the dramatic scenes, then films the on-field action with a crisp coherence. The players at times seem to be making superhuman moves, as if they’re Madden NFL characters being played by a kid with a remote control. But there’s no shaky cam or quick edits to dilute the moment, whether it’s a well-earned victory or painful loss.
“When the Game Stands Tall” ventures beyond the constraints of a simple feel-good story. The Kelly subplot is handled respectfully, sticking more closely to the facts than other parts of the film. A visit by the team to a Veterans Administration hospital is a particularly successful scene, simultaneously stoking audience emotions while offering some grittier-than-usual sights by PG-rated high school sports film standards.
Many sports movies include scenes where coaches say that winning isn’t everything … and then they win everything. “When the Game Stands Tall” spends its entire 115 minutes proving that statement true.