My Journey from Fan to NFL Team Captain
by Vince Papale, Chad Millman
Drama on the simplest level, this is the essentially true story of a hometown hero who had enough talent on the football field to take advantage of an opportunity to get on a major team and lift up his family and friends.
The best thing Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) has going for him is the camaraderie with his pals in his working class neighborhood of South Philly and his superior abilities in their sandlot football games. These are regularly held after work on the local field when the group isn't assembled in their official clubhouse, the local bar. All else is gloom and doom. With the loss of his already poorly paying job as a parttime teacher during strike-filled bad economic times, his wife leaves him with a parting note about his worthlessness.
Bar owner Max (Michael Rispoli) comes to the rescue with a job as bartender, ensuring him, at least, a modicum of income and a place where he's the regular center of attention when all eyes aren't on the tube watching the local NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles. But, not too long afterward, he's sharing the bartending spotlight with Janet (Elizabeth Banks), Max's niece who, by virtue of growing up in New York with 6 brothers, is a Giants fan.
But that's perfectly all right since she's such a blond looker she could get away with worse, and she's providing the guys, and especially Vince, some real brightness in their very grounded, very regular lives. But, that's about to change.
In a response to a string of losing seasons, the Philadelphia Eagles announce the hiring of a new coach formerly of UCLA, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear). His starting approach is to whip up the winds of public awareness and shake up the general lassitutde in the prevailing culture of the team. To pull this off, he announces a search throughout the state for local talent. The guys at the bar and Vince's dad Frank (Kevin Conway) are unanimous in their belief that Vince should try out.
A rare flash of insight comes in the scene when Vince consults his dad for a word of advice about whether to do it, as though he's really struggling with the decision. "Nah," says Frank. "You've been such a failure why add another notch to the string?" (Or words to that effect). This is such a stunning bit of reverse psychology coming from a man who well knows his son (and how to play him), it leaves all witnessess speechless, most of all Vince. It's also a perfect prelude to spying him in the crowd of would-be NFLers.
The tryouts are a complete mess and everyone is sent home unpicked. Except for Vince. Vermeil follows Vince out to his decrepit car in the parking lot to inform him he's been chosen for the team trials. After the rejoicing among his supporters, and a yet brighter gleam in Janet's eyes, Vince faces grueling field tests and his symbolism to the team veterans of their own fallibilities. He's as much an object of macho scorn as a plaything on the training field. But he hangs in, and makes people mighty proud.
For my money, Wahlberg is a good choice for the role, combining earnest dedication with physical presence. Although NFL team members won't be impressed with his size, as far as movie star choices go, he's buff and unsissy enough to make action on the gridiron credible, as he is gently tentative in the romantic moments with his hot co-star. Banks is exquisite enough to make us yearn for her affections as she gets drawn to her co-star. She expresses spirited involvement in the testosterone atmosphere of football.
Which, by the way, is convincingly bone crushing, what with the benefit of close-in action and appropriate sound effects. But, clearly, when players send their mates flying, or are tackled and/or brutally mugged, you know contact's been made and the effects are just there to emphasize the body violence. Pain in this context is reality--something to be shrugged off with the pride of being able to. The field action is recorded by director Ericson, a former cinematographer now acting as his own shooter.
The screenplay by Brad Gann sticks close to the essentials with enough contrivance to make his points and stretch interest to the final goal of sport spirit.