"Hoosiers" ought to be subtitled "It's a Wonderful Basketball Life!" I've watched this David and Goliath tale a number of times, and it doesn't matter one bit that I know the outcome. I still get the same kind of emotional high at the end as I do when all of Bedford Falls pours into the Bailey home with gifts of redemptive cash, while everyone sings "Hark the Herald Angels" and Clarence finally gets his wings.
Maybe that's why Sports Illustrated and ESPN named "Hoosiers" one of the best sports movies of all-time. It has heart. "Hoosiers" is the perfect metaphor for the athletic life: the little school of under 70 students whose team takes on a school of more than 2700 students in the State Finals, and wins; the made-a-mistake coach who gets a second chance, and makes good; and the embodiment of the sports cliché that if you work hard for the good of the team, good things will happen. Add a love interest side plot and another involving the alcoholic parent of one of the players who's brought back into the fold of winners by the new coach, and this one scores big.
Based on the real-life dream season of little Milan High School, which beat powerhouse Muncie Central in the 1954 championship game in one of the greatest moments in Indiana sports, "Hoosiers" does a fine job of capturing the overachieving work ethic of the quintessential underdog. And writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh do an equally wonderful job of capturing the Norman Rockwell ambience of Indiana in the 1950s, helped considerably by their decision to use real Hoosiers and real high school basketball players.
Jack Nicholson wanted desperately to play the part of coach Norman Dale, but had to back out because of his schedule. It worked out fine, because Gene Hackman, who grew up within an hour's drive of the film's locale, turns in one of his best performances as the dishonored coach who was barred by the NCAA for physically striking a player, and finds new life as coach of a high school team in the small town of Hickory--a composite of four Indiana locations (New Richmond, Nineva, Knightstown, and Waveland). Barbara Hershey also turns in one of her best performances as a teacher who's rubbed the wrong way by the new coach but ends up becoming his biggest supporter. And Dennis Hopper? As the alcoholic father of a player who ends up on the bench as Dale's assistant coach, he's more believable than he's ever been.
Coach Dale wants to do it his way, which means defense and passing and doing what the man says. His slow-down offense riles the locals, who were used to a run-and-gun style of play. The best shooter in town won't play, other players quit, and the coach would rather play short-handed than allow his players to act up. As a result, the town's ready to introduce him to a railroad car, until the woman who played Boxcar Bertha stands up and says he needs a chance. And the best player says he'll play if the coach stays. The result? History. But it's a fun ride, no matter how many times you watch it. Partly it's the performances, partly it's the against-all-odds story, and partly it's the way this film captures the heart and soul of Indiana.
This was always a dark film, and it's still dark in Blu-ray, proving that the problem has been with the source materials. You have to wonder, though, in this age of digital manipulation why the images weren't brightened a bit. When the championship game erupts in a burst of color, you begin to see that the palette may indeed have been forced on the filmmakers by Mother Nature, who rained 36 of 39 shooting days, we were told in the commentary on the special edition. What HD does best is to capture detail from dark scenes, and this Blu-ray transfer looks pretty good in that respect. However, Blu-ray also calls attention to flaws, and there's a slight graininess apparent in some scenes now that wasn't noticeable in the special edition. The 1080p picture was transferred using MPEG-2 technology at 21MBPS and is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, which fills out the entire 16x9 TV monitor.
There's not much in the way of rear speaker action, but the tracking on the front and center speakers is fairly precise. When, for example, the camera zeroes in on Coach Dale during a game and the pep band is playing, as the camera does a 360 around the coach the band sound moves from left to right main speaker, and settles on the center speaker when the camera focuses on them. The special edition was recorded at a volume that seemed too low, but the Blu-ray comes closer to what passes for normal output these days. The featured soundtrack is an English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless, and it has a nice balance between treble and bass. It also has a clear and clean sound. Additional options are in English 4.0 Dolby Surround and Spanish/French Mono, with subtitles in English (CC) and Spanish.
Ouch. Given the price-tag, fans are going to be disappointed that all the popcorn features were dumped en route to the bleachers. It's almost insulting to see, under features, "original theatrical trailer" listed, after the special edition gave us "Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend," a full-length commentary by director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo, 13 deleted scenes, and archival footage of the real high school team that inspired this film.
"Hoosiers" is a classic sports film--a showcase for unlikely winners and the unlikely tandem of Hackman, Hershey and Hopper, who click together like team players. And Blu-ray makes this naturally dark film look crisper.