Invincible

(2006) ** 1/2 Pg
128 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Ericson Core. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Kirk Acevedo, Lola Glaudini.

There's no getting around it. Invincible, based on the life story of Vince Papale, is corny. And despite the claim to truth, Invincible seems to be clouded in mythology. With the right talent and energy and sincerity, the sports movie can do an end run around clichés, but Invincible loses possession early on and has trouble holding onto the ball.

In a dour, paint-by-numbers opening act, we meet Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a bartender who turns up for open tryouts for the Philadelphia Eagles and wins the right to turn up to training camp in the late '70s (a thrilling fiction bearing little resemblance to how Papale actually entered the Eagles' inner circle). Will he make the team? Will coach Dick Vermeil (the ever-likeable Greg Kinnear) give Papale the benefit of the doubt? Does Tom Landry wear a hat? That the answers are obvious does Invincible no favors.

Oddly, Invincible pays little attention to game play (a notable exception: wide-receiver Papale's decision to switch to quarterback pads so he can run more easily). Brad Gann's screenplay instead stretches in other directions. Gann touches on the union struggle (specifically a Westinghouse strike) that complicated making ends meet for the boys in Papale's hood, but the storyline fizzles out inconsequentially. Worse, Invincible celebrates a childish macho code by suggesting Papale would've been a pussy to sit out a muddy, rough-and-tumble street game even though an injury would spell the end of his young football career.

Invincible amounts to the football equivalent of The Rookie, though Papale's skills are never miraculous. He lives on the bubble as a pro player, and as the film duly notes, he had only played a year of high-school ball and no college ball. To Gann's credit, he never hypes Papale's career beyond its real-life proportions. Still, Papale's relationships with his dejected pop ("A man can only take so much failure") and would-be girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) make for half-hearted melodrama. Character actor Jack Kehler makes more of an impression as skeptical TV sports reporter Wade Chambers.

"He's got heart," protests Vermeil to team owner Leonard Tose (Michael Nouri). "People don't want heart, Dick. They want wins," Tose replies. But Hollywood knows better. Everything in Invincible is designed to prove that Papale and his cinematic life story have genuine heart and soul: the row houses, the neighborhood dive bar, the street league. Vermeil enthuses, "We need to find the soul of this team again," and it's been hiding in plain sight in Philly's common man. The notion that Papale is living the dream for all Philly fans is a good hook, but this dog is so "under" he can hardly ever enjoy the experience.

The leading performances are solid but never inspired, just like Ericson Core's direction. As his own cinematographer, Core makes the film look like the yellowed pages of a 1970s magazine, and he opens the film with a full-on, slo-mo music video for Jim Croce's "Down the Highway." The nostalgia helps, but Invincible demonstrates the diminishing returns of the Disney sports-movie formula.

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