The year is 1976. Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) is a substitute teacher who also works as a part-time bartender to make ends meet. Things in South Philly, where Vince lives, aren't going well — factories are closing and jobs are scarce. Soon Vince loses his teaching job and his wife leaves him. Through the hard times, his refuge is his love for football, his buddies, and his devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Unfortunately, the Eagles are not doing well either, and soon they bring in a new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) from UCLA, to fix the team. To energize the team, as well as the city, Vermeil holds an open tryout. Vince, not wanting to be a failure anymore, decides to try his luck. His raw talent gets him into the training camp. That's only the beginning.
To make the final team, Vince has to work hard. As an outsider and at age 30, Vince doesn't jell with the other teammates, and they're not cutting him any slack either. Vince has a lot of self-doubt about himself, even though his father Frank (Kevin Conway) and his buddies have faith in him — as does Vermeil, who decides not to cut Vince from his team. He knows Vince needs his team just as Philadelphia needs Vince.
Against all odds, Vince has to prove to the people he loves, as well as himself, that he is indeed an Eagle, and that dreams do come true through hard work and determination.
Wahlberg (Four Brothers) have matured over the years as an actor. He excels in playing downtrodden blue-collar guys (Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm). As Vince Papale, Wahlberg exudes a genuine earnestness that makes his character relatable. Vince Papale is not a flamboyant hero — he's quiet, taciturn, introspective and resolute, and Wahlberg does a respectable job in portraying him. Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine) has a relatively smaller role, albeit a pivotal one. It's clear that the story is about Vince Papale, and not Dick Vermeil. But Kinnear handles the role with heart, humor and dignity. He complements Wahlberg.
As a bartender who falls in love with Vince Papale, Elizabeth Banks (Slither) reminds me of Rachael McAdams or a young Elizabeth Shue. She is sweet with just the right kind of spunk and intelligence for us to really root for her. Conway (The Promise) is solid as Vince's father, and Michael Rispoli (Lonely Hearts) is wonderfully jolly as Vince's supportive boss, Max. Kirk Acevedo (24) holds his own as Vince's best friend, the person who always believes in him. The large cast in general does a great job in portraying the down-to-earth people in Vince's neighborhood.
The actors who play Vince's fellow Eagles don't have much to do but to play ball, with the exception of Stink Fisher (The Longest Yard), who leaves a good impression as Denny Frank.
Based on Papale's true Cinderella story, writer Brad Gann (Black Irish) creates a solid script, avoiding the schmaltz that is typical of a feel-good story about sports. Gann is able to eliminate the use of foul language and overt sexuality (this is a Disney film, after all) and still effectively develop the characters and show us the time and place. Granted, there are scenes that remind us of other period, true-life sports movies such as Miracle or Friday Night Lights: the father-son prep talks, the buddy scenes, the coach's inspirational speeches, the gruesome practices, the boy-meets-girl subplot, and the obligatory sports action. There are certainly cliches here, but I don't really mind. That's the kind of feel-good formula that actually works for the genre. We come to expect these cliches; no, we demand them. And Gann delivers with emotional punches.
Doubling as cinematographer, director Ericson Core (Daredevil) complements the script with a no-frill production. He aptly shows the time period without resorting to cheesy costumes and make-up. The details are subtle but persuasive. The cinematography has the customary hard edges and gritty looks for a sports film. The rotoscoping effect and close-ups during the action shots add to the excitement. While the production does follow a by-the-book plot line and has a crowd-pleasing climax complete with a heartfelt epilogue, it manages to stay afloat without overt sentimentality and sap. Best of all, it has real heart. Its uplifting themes are truly inspirational. It may not be as good as Miracle or Friday Night Lights, but it's a worthy addition to this invincible genre.
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Conway, Michael Rispoli, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Stink Fisher, Michael Nouri, Paige Turco
Director: Ericson Core
Writer: Brad Gann
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: PG for sports action and mild language
Running Time: 105 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10