American football movies are a dime a dozen, but few have stood out to me like When the Game Stands Tall, the remarkable true story of legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur, who led California’s De La Salle Spartans to a record 151 consecutive victories. Unfortunately, I’m going to remember this one for all the wrong reasons.
I give every movie, no matter how bad they might seem, a fighting chance. But it took just a couple of minutes before I told the guy next to me, “This is really bad.”
From the first scenes I could tell this was going to be one corny, sentimental journey riddled with cliches and painfully obvious plot points that hit all the boiler plate markers at exactly the moments you’d expect them to. I was of course right, as the film stayed true to itself all the way to the predictable end.
Instead of the uplifting emotions the film was aiming for, all I got was manipulation as obvious as dogs’ balls. Insane amounts of awkward, expository dialogue; catchphrases and monologues you expect to only hear on televised evangelist sermons or sports parodies; cringeworthy moments and characters galore. It’s laughably bad (I’m not exaggerating; I literally laughed out loud several times at the unintentional humour).
The film actually starts toward the end of the winning streak, beginning on such a high that you know exactly where it is going to go: fall from grace, start over, work hard, minor conflicts along the way, big “f*%$ yeah!” climax at the end.
The themes are ones you’ve seen a million times. Doubts about God, passion railroaded by health, neglecting family for job, battling poverty, overbearing parents, and the jock “brotherhood.” Players clash, family members clash, but everything they say is cliched and none of it feels genuine. Everything is shoved in your face like someone handing out flyers on a street corner. The worst was the vomit-inducing heart-to-hearts between the players before the big game, barely outdoing the “inspiring” visit to see rehabilitating war veterans to give them a new perspective. Of course, this visit never happened in real life.
On top of all that, the film’s characters are harder to fathom existing than the team’s impressive winning streak. Fair enough, they attended a Catholic school and Ladouceur is, by all accounts, extremely devout, but seriously, come on. I know he’s played by Jim Caviezel, but in this film, Ladouceur is more Jesus than Jesus. He’s the complete opposite of every caricature “win at all costs” evil high school sports coach in film history. He cares for everyone (I mean really really cares), puts players before wins, always knows what’s right, spews Bible verses verbatim. And his biggest flaw is — wait for it — is that he’s a closet smoker. God forbid! He even as an obnoxious assistant coach to make him look even holier.
Among the players, the two that stand out are Ladouceur’s son Danny, played by Matthew Daddario, brother to the smoking Alexandra Daddario, and the fictional running back Chris Ryan, played by The Hunger Games‘ Alexander Ludwig. Much of the focus is placed on Ryan’s relationship with his father, played by Shawshank guard Clancy Brown, who is a caricature that combines every repugnant high school sports dad ever depicted on screen.
The only thing I can honestly say the film has going for it is some well-executed football game action. The plays look real enough to me, and even when you know what’s going to happen they offer a bit of a rush. But a lot of football films have good game sequences, and it’s not enough to offset the plethora of negatives.
When the Game Stands Tall might not be the worst film of 2014, but it will likely go down as the most unbearable. As well-intentioned as it may have been, even Jesus couldn’t bring salvation to this hackneyed melodrama.
1.5 stars out of 5