Ah, January. That special time of year that can mean only one thing to all of you inveterate sports fans out there in movieland… Super Bowl. So whether you’re rooting for the Steelers or the Cardinals, there’s no better pre-game ritual than a football movie marathon. To help you in your decision-making, we’re revisiting some of the football movie genre’s hits, misses and fumbles.
Brian’s Song (1971)
Brian’s Song is comparable to David Anspaugh’s Rudy (see below) in that they are both unmitigated tearjerkers. It is also comparable to Rudy in that they are both true stories. And that they both deal with not just football, but disappointment, friendship, overcoming obstacles and courage. But Brian’s Song is different in that it does not have a happy ending. It’s the story of the bond that formed between Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and the legendary Gale Sayers. When Piccolo is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Sayers helps him through it until the end. If one does not cry watching this movie, or listening to it (one of the saddest movie scores ever by composer Michel Legrand) then one does not have a pulse.
The Longest Yard (1974)
The Longest Yard was shot during the golden age of the football movie—the 1970s, an era which still produced an original idea every now and then. The story of an ex-pro quarterback (Burt Reynolds) who leads a group of prison inmates in a game against the prison guards, it features one-dimensional characters, but characters you care about and root for nonetheless. This is not to be confused with the Adam Sandler remake of the same name, as there are several differences between the two movies: First, on his best day, Sandler couldn’t carry Reynolds’ jock as an on-screen personality—or athlete. Second, the opening scene of Robert Aldrich’s original movie features a domestic violence sequence that would make Ike Turner grimace—one you couldn’t get away with today. Also, throughout the movie, besides his trademark charm and dry sense of humor, Reynolds displays most of his real hair.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Based on Harry Segall’s play of the same name—which has been remade on numerous occasions—this New Hollywood classics, co-directed by Buck Henry and star Warren Beatty, is virtually nothing like the Ernst Lubitsch version that preceded it in 1943. Because this is a football movie. A perfectly written, acted and directed football movie. When quarterback Joe Pendleton is taken to heaven prematurely prior to his team going to the Super Bowl, he must do everything in his power—and heaven’s—to procure a new body, convince his old coach of who he really is, buy his old football team and insert himself as its star quarterback. Yikes! It’s not nearly as convoluted as it sounds—and is hands down the best football movie of all time.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
Another quality football movie from the golden age, North Dallas Forty s the semi-fictional account of a pro football team (based on the Dallas Cowboys teams of the early 1970s). It is brash, loud and irreverent and gives a completely unrelenting look at the mostly unglamorous life of a professional football player.
The Best of Times (1986)
This is an often-overlooked gem of a football movie. You will watch it and then ask yourself, “Why did I like that so much?” The answer is, because it was written by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup), and Ron Shelton can turn out a whale of a sports movie. Doesn’t mater what sport it is. This one happens to be about football and is perfectly cast with Kurt Russell as the strapping yet aging ex-high school quarterback with an attitude problem and Robin Williams (at his understated and mellowed-out best) as the nerdly ex-high school receiver with a chance to redeem himself for the pass he didn’t catch.
This is the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, and undersized kid who works his way on to the Notre Dame football squad. Okay, so it’s not the most cerebral football movie on the panel, but so what? What it lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in heart and spirit. Plus, it’s written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, two seasoned pros at crafting feelgood-infused sports movies (Hoosiers, The Game of Their Lives). Oh, and guys: The goosebumps on your arm and lump in the throat you’ll experience when watching the ending are just precursors to a much larger disorder known as… balling your damn eyes out.
The Program (1993)
The Program is one of those movies that college guys get a hold of and watch religiously for four years, then sever ties with permanently after they graduate. A story of camaraderie (and bad behavior) on and off the football field, it tackles steroids, domestic abuse, alcoholism, success-driven coaches and basic male machismo. It’s kind of like a non-humorous and less chipper Necessary Roughness, except it’s damn entertaining, if not completely irrelevant.
Necessary Roughness (1991)
It’s not a coincidence that this was the last movie that Stan Dragoti (Love at First Bite, Mr. Mom) directed. This movie is very similar to The Replacements (see below) in that both movies are comedies, in theory, and they both stink. The basic plot of Necessary Roughnesscenters around the phenomenon of “iron man football,” which describes a team that uses the same players on both defense and offense… interesting. Once you have the basic plot, writing a football comedy is pretty easy: Create a bunch of wacky, oddball characters, put them on the field and allow them to overachieve and watch the hilarity ensue. Whatever you do, however, don’t dare develop the characters. There is no greater impediment to zaniness on a football field than character development.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Some directors have trouble keeping a movie under two hours. Oliver Stone is one of them. At 150 minutes in length, this movie is easily an hour too long. No football movie should have a running time longer than an actual football game. This is the story of Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), a pro quarterback who rises from mediocrity to primetime, and his ability (or inability) to deal with instant success at the highest level of his profession. Tedious.
The Replacements (2000)
Needless to say, this is not one of the great films of the genre. However, it takes movies like this one to make the superior ones stand out in a crowd. After all, how would we know Mozart was any good if there was no Salieri? How would we know Coke was so tasty if there was no Shasta? This may be the worst argument ever put forth. This is a movie about, if you haven’t already guessed, replacement players, or scabs, brought on to finish out a strike season. Fertile field for folly and hijinks? Maybe, but not here. MM