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Thirty and Long 

Longtime NFL fans may remember colorful 1970s Oakland Raiders lineman Otis Sistrunk. TV game announcers habitually identify a player by his position and the university he attended. But Sistrunk didn't play college football and was thus the frequent subject of mild jokes. Saints fans will know the case of fleet Michael Lewis who drove a beer truck and never attended college. Lewis had such speed he turned a tryout into a successful career as a kick returner. In short, NFL rosters are overwhelmingly populated by players trained in university football, but on very rare occasions, a player with unique skills has made an NFL team without NCAA experience. Ericson Core's Invincible is the story of one individual with the audacity and grit to pursue a professional football dream despite a lack of size or college playing credentials. Obviously, such a story exists in the cinematic universe somewhere between Rocky and Rudy. It's not as powerful as either of those two better pictures, but for fans of such films, it's not a wasted outing.

Written by Brad Gann and based on actual events, Invincible is the story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old Philadelphia public school teacher who loses his position in the economic downturn of the mid-1970s and resorts to tending bar. As a teacher, Vince had briefly tip-toed into the middle class, but he continues to live in the blue-collar neighborhood where he grew up and in the company of life-long pals, most of whom, like his own father, are factory laborers. A subtext to Vince's circumstances lies in his class insecurity. His father and some of his friends eye his teaching career with suspicions of class betrayal. Meanwhile, in contrast, Vince's wife fears that Vince will never escape his working class roots. And thus to make his situation even worse, within days of getting his teaching furlough, Vince comes home to find his apartment empty save for a cruel separation note from his wife denouncing him as a loser who will never amount to anything.

Then into Vince's bleak situation comes a crazy idea. Vince is the unchallenged star in the mudlot football games he plays with his pals. He hasn't participated in organized football since high school. But he remains fit, fast and elusive. So when new Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) announces that he's going to hold open tryouts, all Vince's friends encourage him to show up. Vermeil actually sees the open tryouts as mostly a publicity ploy, a device to generate interest in an Eagles franchise that has failed on the field and declined in attendance. The film treats Vermeil with great reverence, however, and underscores his openness to any talent that might improbably be revealed. Vince Papale is that improbable talent. He has NFL speed and good hands. Vermeil remains aware of the publicity advantage of inviting Vince to training camp, but he seems to like Vince as well. It is testimony to how difficult it is to make an NFL roster when it's not clear Vince can make the team even though the head coach is rooting for him.

Inspirational as is Vince's attempt to make the Eagles, that story alone perhaps lacks enough complications to flesh out the narrative of an entire feature. Thus, we get some of the same old as additional material. Though skittish about another romance so soon after his separation, Vince can't help but take notice of Janet Cantrell (Elizabeth Banks), the blond beauty who starts working at the bar about the same time he does. Janet is nice, optimistic, encouraging and single. She's also a serious football fan. So what's not to date? Of course, in standard movie format there has to be some boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl before boy and girl can get together in the happily ever after. Moreover, to provide otherwise missing conflict, some mean vets don't want the old man rookie to make the squad for little convincing reason other than the otherwise missing conflict. I tried to ignore the fact that almost all the mean vets are black, even though it's a poor choice in a film not elsewhere attending to issues of race.

And, predictably, for reasons of requisite stretch, there's lots of training footage, some of overweight wannabes slamming into blocking sleds and tackling dummies to provide moments of comic relief. And there's enough head-snapping action to make you wonder why any wide receiver would ever go over the middle even once. Are the words a quarterback most often hears on a pass play, "I'll be open out in the flat"?

In the end though, despite the liberal application of formula, Invincible makes you like its central character plenty enough to keep you watching. The class dynamic provides context that makes Vince's quest about more than just himself. And as the end makes clear, even when dreams don't last forever, they sometimes come true enough to make all the difference.

click to enlarge Former teacher Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) tries to beat - the odds and break into pro football. - (C) DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC
  • (C) Disney Enterprises, Inc
  • Former teacher Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) tries to beat the odds and break into pro football.
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