The underdog is key to a great sports movie.
"When the Game Stands Tall" tries to turn the high school football winning machine De La Salle High School — they're the guys with the longest winning streak of 151 straight victories — into the kind of underdog that makes for a heart-tugging sports movie.
That never happens. When the film is over, you're not likely to stand up and cheer.
Jim Caviezel plays De La Salle head football coach Bob Ladouceur. He's a soft-spoken man who uses Biblical teachings to develop top high school athletes and good young men.
In the aftermath of a health issue that sidelines the coach and the loss of a player in a tragic incident, the team's streak comes to an end. The coach, team and community try to deal with something they hadn't experienced in more than a dozen years — losing games.
The idea that this team's struggle is getting back to winning is the central problem with the movie. It's not like they had to replace a team killed in a plane crash, deal with the first season of racial integration or pull together a group of small town hicks to win a state championship. They lost a couple of games and are trying to bounce back. Boo hoo.
Despite valiant efforts, director Thomas Carter ("Coach Carter") and writer Scott Marshall Smith can't turn a couple of serious situations from a storied franchise into the kind of struggling contender that wins over hearts.
The underdog issue might have been ignored if the movie had found strength in either the spiritual messages or the staging of the games. Both come across as mechanical — like they were just dropped in to keep this movie from being 15 minutes long.
"When the Game" fumbles as a religious movie. It's not enough to spout a few Scriptures. These words have to be translated into the actions of those involved, and the evidence of that in the film is sparse.
As for the football sequences, there's plenty of running around, passing and looking at the clock. There's so much looking at the clock that you would think the movie was trying to be the sports genre's answer to "High Noon." Because the players are so two-dimensional, what happens on the field feels stiff and uninspired. Everyone has the motions down pat, but they just don't bring any emotion.
It all comes down to this being a movie about a storied sports franchise that has a minor setback. It's not enough of a tragedy to make this a great sports film.
"When the Game Stands Tall," rated PG for brief violence, smoking. Stars Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern. Directed by Thomas Carter. Running time: 115 minutes. Grade: C-