We’re fast approaching one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the Super Bowl. Get your nachos, your BBQ wings and your beers ready because it’s going to be a long night!
I chose this time to look back on some of the best sporting events in the way of film, to get me in the mood. The right sports flick can seem like the perfect movie safe haven. We enjoy them because we’re a sucker for an underdog story. Watching someone’s gruelling hardship finally payoff in a monumental way, and it’s often as triumphant for us to witness as it is for the characters to live out through the lens of cinema. Sometimes a real tear-jerker, but always a moment of glorifying human achievement that you can’t help but celebrate. Sometimes true stories, other times inspired by such, either way you’re almost guaranteed to be moved or inspired in some way or another.
I’ve hand picked five films that I believe best epitomize the guilty pleasured sub-genre. Covering a variety of sports, from multiple decades.
Side note I’ve specifically chose movies in which actually depicts sport as its sole narrative purpose. So despite my love for films like the ‘The Big Lebowski’ or ‘Point Break’, the sport used is seen as more of a background vehicle for a central plot which has little relation.
Any film that not only manages to keep me invested in baseball, but the statistic and analytic side of the sport, is a winner in my books.
2011’s Moneyball invites us into the world of franchise building. The Oakland A’s have been struggling season after season, due to lack of funding and unsuccessful runs. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) hires Ivy League graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who sees the game and potential for success in a very different way. The pair use player statistics to alter their game to give them a competitive edge that nobody else in the league dares to use.
It paints a very different picture to how sport is usually portrayed on screen. It puts a spin on the underdog story and throws a curveball against the proverbial clichés that we’re hit over the head with time and time again in the industry.
Director Bennett Miller joins up with co-writer Aaron Sorkin to adapt Michael Lewis’ novel Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Whilst it’s far more grounded in its approach to the sport category, Moneyball goes against the grain of what is considered normal and comes out on top, much like the method used by the characters in the movie.
Perhaps not Brad Pitt’s most stylish performance but still certainly one of his best. A dramatic career turn for Jonah Hill and enjoyable performances from Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Chris Pratt in his freshman days of acting. The film itself, along with the 2002 Oakland A’s team, are not the write off you may perhaps consider them.
Truly one of the most surprising hits in recent memory. Gavin O’Connor’s 2011 MMA (yet another sport I personally couldn’t care less about) drama, defined odds with its surprising depth and rich storytelling.
A sport that is pure brawn, blood and bones. On paper this has all the ingredients of being just as ugly as the sport itself. Yes it’s pretty much about guys who like beating each other to a bloody pulp all for the sake of sport, and yes it’s about as predictable as you would expect. But thankfully O’Connor’s slobber knocker is far more than just that.
The well written and acted brotherly duo of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton provide the prefect balance of high octane energy and sombre drama. We get a genuine sense of realism in their torn relationship. The film consistently builds on the narrative of their broken family trauma, right up until the moment they finally throw down, in a glorious final act that has far more weight and heightened stakes than the traditional underdog or revenge story.
Director Gavin O’Connor has dabbled in the sporting genre throughout his career. From ice hockey in 2004’s ‘Miracle’, to basketball in his most recent project, 2020’s ‘The Way Back’. Both of which could pop up on a handful of these lists, but it’s his sporting sophomore attempt that has landed the lasting impression with me.
Plenty of movies have attempted to cash in on the increase of popularity for the octagonal cage sport, but if Warrior was to tackle any of them on a one on one, then consider it a first round knockout.
Remember the Titans:
Hollywood usually has two angles for a successful American football movie. Either following the story of a high prospect player (usually the quarterback), or a new coach hired to turn shit into stardust. It’s a quick selling formula, especially in America where football is treated like a separate religion. Remember the Titans doesn’t necessarily change that formula, but it adapts it, and makes it about something that is more than just a sport.
Remember the Titans is based on the true story of a 1971 high school football team. The ’71 Virginian based Titans tackled integration with new head coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) leading the parade. Despite the increasing scrutiny he was facing, Boone never wavered in his goal to end racism and make a team out of some youngsters that had no intention of rolling over, or sharing the limelight with that of someone of a different colour.
Whilst it deals with the racial struggles of its time respectfully and informatively, it wouldn’t be enough to make its way onto this list without its sporting influence, and Remember the Titans casts a great image of redemption and retribution. Home to plenty of timeless and inspirational moments that sports fans have been lapping up for almost twenty years since its release.
Even if all that wasn’t enough to persuade you of its spot on this list, the impressive cast ensemble has plenty to get excited about, even if at the time of release it didn’t know it. Denzel Washington is charismatic as ever as coach Herman Boone. Alongside him as the clashing coach is Will Patton (Armageddon, Halloween – 2018), who serves as a great ying to Washington’s yang. Joining the fray are Wood Harris (Dredd, Creed), Donald Faison (Scrubs), Ethan Suplee (My Name is Earl) and Kate Bosworth (21, The Superman Returns). Perhaps the biggest surprise is the very young and eager coach’s daughter Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville) and an almost unrecognisable, but still charming as ever, Ryan Gosling.
Remember the Titans isn’t void of the clichés, but it kind of just embraces them. It is a Disney product after all so you can expect a fair share of altered narrative choices. But the Titans certainly are remembered, and “there ain’t no mountain high enough” to stop it from being revered from years to come.
It’s become a commonplace to claim an actor was perfect for a role, and that nobody else could’ve done it better. It’s high honour for an actor when they receive such praise. We’ve had it with Robert Downey Jr. and his unforgettable role as Iron Man/Tony Stark in the MCU. Similarly within the comic book world we had the same with Hugh Jackman’s performance as the Wolverine. Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, Heath Ledger as the Joker and James Earl Jones providing his voice for Darth Vader are also popular choices. One performer who’s character seems so interwoven with their own personas however, is the rarely discussed performance of Mickey Rourke as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson.
Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 gloomy drama, brings us into the rings of extreme wrestling. This isn’t the mainstream stuff you get from the top end brands you see on a weekly basis, but the far more raw and gritty shows where an audience participation of 200 people, is probably considered a sold out show. Expect barbed wire, buckets of blood and balls of steel from its participants.
At the end of it all is Mickey Rourke’s Randy, other known as ‘The Ram’. He’s been doing this wrestling gig for years and despite clear signs that it’s perhaps finally time to hang up the elbow pads and boots, he trudges trough the steps of his job and continues to put his body through its paces. With a meddling heart condition that is exactly what he is advised to do.
The Ram is a damaged soul. Long beyond his wrestling prime and little going for him in his private life. “I’m an old broken down piece of meat, and I’m alone” is what he tells his estranged daughter, pleading for a moment of sheer aspiration. There’s so much in Rourke’s performance that seems so second natured, you get sucked into believing he’s been living a second life in Aronofsky’s wrestling world. Undoubtedly his best performance and the only role he received an Oscar nomination for.
The wrestling sequences are both hard to look at, but also hard to look away from. Aronofsky throws us into every sequence like we’re involved in it ourselves. Every connection from a weapon, every thump from fists or elbows and every crash to the canvas seems brutal and relentless. There’s always a cloud hovering over the wrestling world in regards to what seems fake and scripted, and what comes across as genuine or authentic. But let me tell you that everything about The Wrestler seems real.
And so we’ve come to the Godfather of underdog heroes. Sylvester Stallone’s big break into the film industry shocked the world back in 1979, when he wrote and took the lead role in this boxing classic.
The best picture winner may not seem the most remarkable, with its grounded approach to storytelling and odd lead acting choice, but for audience members back in ’79, Rocky quickly became a knockout hit. From its $1 million budget to its $200 million+ in gross revenue, much like Stallone’s character, Rocky surprised the world with its achievements.
Truthfully there’s a few films from the Rocky franchise that you could pick from that would be worthy of earning a spot on these lists, but none have the heart from its grand opening. Rocky is the everyday man. He boxes for peanuts and his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) is done with him not reaching his potential. But when world champion Apollo Creed (played wonderfully by Carl Weathers) offers the nobody a shot at the world title, Rocky is forced to dig deep and finally compete on the big stage.
We feel empathy and perhaps a deep sense of compassion for Rocky, and as we follow this journey with him, we root for our hero every step of the way, even if taking on the champion seems an impossible goal. Through the charming moments we get with his girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire), to the training montages that make us want to get off of our seats and join in ourselves. Rocky is a triumphant tale of an underachiever finally reaching his potential, and when he throws his fists up in the air as a symbolic gesture to his future journey, you feel the need to do it too.
What did you think of my list? Which films would make yours and why? Feel free to drop a comment below!