When the Game Stands Tall has the playbook to create a compelling, engaging and even inspirational football film, but fumbles nearly every opportunity to create another gridiron classic.
The film is based on Bob Ladouceur, a high school coach who led the De La Salle High School Spartans to a record-shattering 151-game winning streak.
Bob (Jim Caviezel, Escape Plan) is meeting with his players at the end of yet another season where they’ve obliterated the competition and playing for the championship. Caviezel is very reserved — exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from a high school football coach — but appropriate to Ladouceur, so don’t look for a big rah-rah moment from him in this understated performance. Michael Chiklis (Fantastic Four) provides the fiery histrionics (and energy) as assistant coach Terry Eidson.
As Bob prepares for another season, he sizes up a roster that includes his son, Danny (Matthew Daddario); likable defensive lineman Beaser (Joe Massingill) and star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig, The Hunger Games) who’s poised to break the state record next year.
Scott Marshall Smith (The Score) adapts Neil Hayes’ book, but he packs in so much that the film resembles a grab bag of football movie clichés. There’s Laura Dern as Bob’s supportive, yet under-appreciated wife; opposing coaches making accusations that De La Salle is cheating; Clancy Brown as Chris’ overbearing father and Jessie Usher as the cocky, me-first wide receiver more interested in individual glory than the team.
For extra drama, Smith also works in Bob’s health issues and the story of actual De La Salle player Cam Colvin (Ser’Darius Blain, Star Trek Into Darkness), who is forced to endure tremendous tragedy. These various subplots would resonate if any time was given to developing them.
Instead, director Thomas Carter (Save the Last Dance, Coach Carter) just as quickly dismisses them as they’re introduced, which hurts the actors as they only have so long to break their characters out of generic team archetypes.
It doesn’t help that across the board there’s a better football movie that addresses every aspect of the film. Friday Night Lights is a more engrossing look at the big time dynamics of high school football. We Are Marshall depicts fighting back from a greater tragedy. Remember the Titans more effectively handles the sense of camaraderie formed among high school teammates while Facing the Giants is far more committed to its message of faith and its relation to football.
In the interest of not spoiling the most significant plot point, Carter finds some much needed momentum that breathes life into the film’s second half that finally leads to some unpredictability and finds a way to make this unstoppable winning machine a sympathetic underdog.
Carter very competently stages the game footage — the collisions look painful — and it’s during these scenes, the film’s flaws aren’t so glaring.
Despite the multiple subplots, it just comes down to rooting for the characters we’ve followed to triumph in the end.
Had the film started stronger than it finished, While the Game Stands Tall could have been a real contender. Instead it’s like watching the JV team trying to run the same script as the varsity. It’s got the look, but fails to play at a championship level.