The term “the banality of evil” became a famous literary expression. Hollywood is often more guilty of “the banality of good.”
That surely applies to the true-life figure at the center of “When the Game Stands Tall,” a football coach with unparalleled achievements. When translated to the screen, this sports biopic mounts a goal line stand between inspirational and dull.
Bob Ladouceur (played by Jim Caviezel as only slightly less saintlike than his role in “The Passion of the Christ”) amassed 12 straight league championships by 2003 as coach of De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. That season, the Spartans outscored their league opponents 326-27. More impressive, he heads into the 2004 season riding on a 151-game winning streak — a feat unrivaled by any team in American sports.
This season also marks the senior year for his son Danny (Matthew Daddario, a ringer for “Gremlins” star Zach Galligan), a wide receiver on the team. But the coach suffers a heart attack, sidelining his career and putting added strain on the family.
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“The whole time I needed a father, I got a coach. Now I need a coach, and all I’ve got is a lame dad,” Danny tells him.
The seniors seem to think they’re invincible with or without Ladouceur calmly calling the shots. And a tragedy involving a just-graduated player blurs their focus.
Inevitably, their opening game ends in a loss.
How Ladouceur, his family and the team ultimately cope with defeat becomes much more substantial than any winning streak.
After the losing game Ladouceur calls his players “inconsistent, mistake-prone, ragged and not very physical.” That also applies to long stretches of the film. This football movie — adapted by Scott Marshall Smith from the Neil Hayes book — spends an entire half without moving the ball. The narrative in these initial scenes feels scattered as characters enter and exit with scant impact on the plot.
Way too much game footage and training montages add to the padded feel. There should be a cap on how many slow-motion tackles a gridiron flick is allowed to show.
During it all the handsome, blank-eyed Caviezel portrays Ladouceur as the low-key guy that post-credits footage reveals him to be. Again, can’t fault the reality, but the dramatic impact is left wanting. (Perhaps his motivational speeches would sound livelier in Aramaic.)
When a lead character’s most shocking scene is lighting up a cigarette, the momentum of the material must be called into question. And having hip-hop music blare whenever the players head into “the bad part of town” is not the same as introducing actual friction.
Thankfully, the best stuff in “Game” comes after halftime. Ladouceur hopes to teach his Spartans that losing the streak is not the end of the world, so he makes them spend a day assisting amputees at a VA hospital — powerful scenes, thanks to the casting of real disabled vets. The brash egos of the athletes seem to melt away after this experience.
Ladouceur’s faith-based coaching style sinks in, and the players rally to get back into the post season. “Game” finishes strong during a championship that is both unpredictable and genuinely stirring. It provides a big Hollywood moment to an otherwise modest, banal movie.
‘WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL’
Rated PG | Time: 1:55