…really wasn’t all that good a movie – but he looked hot in it.
— female viewer.
Pretty much sums up the Mark Wahlberg vehicle, INVINCIBLE. Written like a Runaway Cliché by Brad Gann and directed well by Ericson Core, INVINCIBLE is one of those “Inspired by a True Story” films that is itself geared to inspire. Grimace. Though it is a heartfelt tribute to a Philadelphia Eagles footballer, its underdog-makes-good plot has been told once, twice, three times too often. Trouble is: if the plot IS the actual “true story,” how do you tell it any other way? Quandary.
In the mid-70s, while Sylvester Stallone shopped his invincible script set in Philadelphia, ROCKY, a real life Philadelphia native was proving he truly was invincible. Vince Papale, a 30 year-old part-time bartender and street footballer, attended open tryouts for his lifelong football heroes, the Eagles, making it through the rigorous culling process and eventually joining the team. With Stallone’s film released concurrently with Papale’s unexpected rise to fame, Papale was often regarded as the real life Rocky.
In INVINCIBLE, Mark Wahlberg is Papale, bringing the role his legitimate, street-credible, freight train demeanor. Head down, do the job. Papale’s only respite from the gloom of the ’75 recession is the local football game with his pub pals (a cast of familiar serial actors, from THE SOPRANOS, NYPD BLUE, LAW & ORDER, OZ, to name a few). Times are hard. Papale’s wife leaves him. His part-time teaching post is cut. His NFL favorites, the Eagles, are continually losing.Times are so hard that the Eagles bring in a new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, in a sincere performance of an insincere hairdo), who “shakes things up” by offering open tryouts to snare new blood for the despondent Eagles. (Vermeil’s family life almost chokes us with syrup: the understanding wife supporting his bravura was bad enough, but the “movie children” twisted my knickers – the type who enter a scene to illustrate family bonds, then immediately disappear, instead of putting chocolatey fingers through daddy’s hair or whining for a yo-yo until they’re slapped.)
At the urging of his pub buddies, Papale tries out – and makes the cut. The reality must have been a thing to behold: the fact is, Papale WAS recruited by the Eagles in 1976 – without one game of college ball under his belt – so he must have possessed some wild aptitude to shine above the engine-pit of Philly’s dregs.
Core shoots the movie through a beautiful, tan-hued “tobacco” lens that lends it a vintage air – fashions, television broadcasts, vehicles, all reeking nostalgic 70s. We can almost interchange Wahlberg here with himself in BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). Conceptually, Wahlberg can also do an interchange with his character in ROCK STAR (2001), another story of a commoner who rises above the pit; who follows an institution and then becomes a part of that institution. (Coincidentally, this movie, like ROCK STAR, also lavishes Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold on the soundtrack.)
Core captures Papale’s isolation and subsequent adulation, all in Panoramic Formulaic. The clichés and foreshadowing are so obvious that when we are slammed with them, we immediately feel dirty. Exhibit A: After Papale has played a few Eagles games, he visits the old neighborhood game and watches from his car. One of his bitter buddies invites him to play, “Don’t know how long the Eagles might want to use you, but your friends could really use you,” and Papale declines because he “has a game tomorrow.” His buddy rejoins the game as it starts to rain.
Can you see it coming? Better, can you see it coming In The Rain? IN SLOMO?
Sho’nuff, Papale steps out of his car into the rain, into the mud, into the slomo. Yes, Screenwriters and Plot Developers, this is why he’s doing it – for the love. For the game. For the Boys.
Exhibit B: During open tryouts, there is a closeup shot of Papale looking up at the empty bleachers, obviously contemplating what it would be like to see them packed with fans. Which means we will see this same shot in the third act – but with bleachers packed with fans. We do. In slomo, of course.
Exhibit C: Throughout the movie, his friends fantasize a winning play (“Papale’s at the 40, he’s at the 30, the 20…”) so frequently that we can do nothing but be caveman-clubbed over the head when this Defining Moment does come – whether we like it or not, and whether we like it in slomo or not; majestic soundtrack icing the play and the commentator’s exact calling of the play as fantasized. Thank you, Disney. No, thank YOU, Vince Papale.
“He played like a guy who lived his dream – however long it was gonna last.”
I don’t know about the validity of the word “inspirational” any more. If you have the aptitude and the love for something, and if you’re given the chance, and if you succeed, well, would you need to draw inspiration from movies such as INVINCIBLE? Your career fell into lockstep with your particular talents. Boo-hoo to anyone who says Life Is Hard.
On the other hand, in not realizing your potential in any field where your talent outshines those around you, would you draw inspiration from this film? Or would it be a bitter, cynical viewing, whining to those around you about the fallacy of golden opportunities, while they’re just trying to ogle Wahlberg’s biceps?
It seems the “inspirational” element will only be gleaned by those who don’t know any better. Following your dream might very well lead down a dead end, chillun, so keep it in perspective: the majestic music and the cheering crowd – and the slomo – would have us believe the Defining Moment was a transfiguration from bartender to god, but he just ran across a line drawn on fake grass. It’s just a touchdown. He ain’t curing cancer.
THAT – would be Invincible.