Invincible is a Walter Mitty tale, but a true one, a fantasy come to life.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Now, before you get all riled up and say it's just another inspirational sports movie based on a true-life character, something the Disney folks have been making their stock-in-trade lately (along with direct-to-video cartoon sequels), hear me out. This one's different. I have to admit that the only such sports movies I've truly enjoyed from Disney recently were "The Rookie" (2002) and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" (2005), but now I can add "Invincible" (2006) to the lineup. It's not a great film, mind you, but this account of football player Vince Papale is a fine, entertaining, even uplifting one, whether or not you're a sports fan.

The story of Papale's rise in the world of American football sounds almost like a fairy tale. According to Wikipedia, "In 1974, while working as a bartender and substitute-teaching, he successfully tried out for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League as a wide receiver. He played for the team for two seasons until the league folded in 1975. His performance with that team earned him a meeting with coach Dick Vermeil of the Philadelphia Eagles after general manager Jim Murray got him an invitation to a private work-out held by coach Vermeil.
"Papale, at 6'2" and 195 pounds, eventually made the team, thereby becoming, at age 30, the oldest rookie in the history of the NFL to play without the benefit of college football experience (other than kickers). He went on to play wide receiver and special teams for the Eagles from 1976 through 1978. During that time, he played in 41 of 44 regular season games (regular seasons being 14 games in 1976-1977 and 16 games in 1978), recording two fumble recoveries (including one that led to Vermeil's first NFL victory) and one fifteen-yard reception. He was voted Special Teams Captain by his teammates and "Man of the Year" by the Eagles in 1978 for his many charitable activities. A shoulder injury ended his career in 1979."

Surely, it is the stuff of legends, a common, ordinary guy breaking into big-time sports at a relatively late age. And, just as surely, it is the stuff of motion pictures, because what guy hasn't fantasized about slamming the winning home run in the World Series, throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, dunking the winning basket in the NBA Finals, or hitting a hole-in-one to win the Masters? "Invincible" is a Walter Mitty tale, but a true one, a fantasy come to life.

"Invincible" works not only because it persuades us that unlikely sports heroes exist, but because its stars, Mark Wahlberg as Papale and Greg Kinnear as coach Dick Vermeil, make us believe. Wahlberg looks smaller than the real Papale, but he makes up for it with his enthusiastic pursuit of the man's inner drive. Kinnear, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for the real Vermeil and portrays him with a gentle but firm authority that practically steals the show from Wahlberg.

The story begins in 1975 at an Eagles-Bengals game that the Eagles badly lose. After a losing season as well, the team needs a new coach, and the owner hires Vermeil straight out of coaching UCLA to a Rose Bowl win. Vermeil needs new blood on his team, and to generate a little spark, and no doubt a little publicity, he announces a day of open tryouts for the team. Anybody can come to the field and show the coaches what they've got. Papale, whose wife has just walked out on him and who has just lost his substitute teaching job because of school cutbacks, has nothing to lose. He's been playing in neighborhood dirt-lot games, he's pretty good, and his friends encourage him to give it a try. The press think the whole open tryout thing is stupid, and when Vermeil asks Papale to training camp, the press think he's a joke.

Worse, the Eagles' players think Papale is a joke. He's thirty years old, for crying out loud, and never played ball in college. Here, the movie takes a few liberties by telescoping events, skipping his two seasons in the World Football League. Nevertheless, Papale is an NFL rookie at an age when most professional football players have already retired or are thinking of leaving the game.

The film follows Papale's training camp experiences through his first few NFL games, but it spends as much or more time on his private life during this period. He's a quiet, modest, unassuming guy, honestly startled by his sudden good luck. He never takes his instant celebrity too seriously and thinks any moment it will all end. We also see that practically no one has confidence in him, not his friends, certainly not his teammates. One of the movie's funniest lines comes from Eagles' teammate Denny Franks (Stink Fisher). When the coach assigns Franks as Vince's roommate in training camp, Vince asks him if he's like everyone else. Franks responds, "Do I hate you? Yeah. I'm the center. I hate everybody."

But Papale has confidence in himself, at least confidence enough to do his best, even if he isn't too sure he can cut it in the big leagues. He is an indefatigable competitor. And Vermeil has confidence in him, which is all Vince needs to keep going, no matter how rough it gets. After all, Papale and Vermeil were in the same boat: They both had to win or go home. Additionally, Vince gets support from his father, from his friends, and from one of his friend's cousins, the movie's romantic interest, Janet Cantrell (Elizabeth Banks). They keep him going.

There is little to dislike in "Invincible," although I was not too keen on the color scheme favored by first-time big-screen director Ericson Core (episodes of TV's "Family Law" being his only other directorial work). To establish a dark and depressing mood from which Papale must break out, Core uses a subdued color palette; unfortunately, it may be too much of a downer for so much of the movie. I also disliked the director's occasionally over-cute, revolving camera movements. It's a story that didn't need the added gimmicks.

But I did enjoy the movie's characterizations, the interactions, the passion, and the straightforward story it tells. I appreciated Vermeil's commitment to the idea that "a team with character will beat a team with better talent" and that he saw in Papale a man of character. I also enjoyed the movie's hard-hitting depiction of the game, an intensity I haven't seen since Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday" but without the phony melodrama. I enjoyed the location shooting in and around Philadelphia and at Texas Stadium, lending a note of authenticity to the proceedings. I enjoyed the fact that the moviemakers didn't attempt turning a simple storyline into an epic, two-and-a-half hour extravaganza but kept things neat-and-trim at 104 minutes. Bigger is not always better. And I enjoyed the 70s' music from Jim Croce, The Games Gang, Steely Dan, Carole King, Dobie Gray, Canned Heat, Grand Funk Railroad, Rod Stewart, Elvin Bishop, Jackson Browne, Ted Nugent, and others.

"Invincible" is a feel-good film of the best kind, maybe the first sports movie in years where I really did want to stand up and cheer. You can't ask much for more than that.

Mostly good news here, despite the director's decision to use the dark tone I mentioned before, with hues running big to yellows, browns, and greys. Thanks to a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer, we get deep blacks, solid definition, and clean inner detailing. The disc renders the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio at about 2.20:1 across my screen, a pretty decent width. So, even with the film's down and dingy atmosphere, the picture quality remains above average.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does nothing in any spectacular way but takes care of business in a rather straightforward, no-nonsense manner. The bass when it's needed is deep and impressive. The front-channel stereo spread is not extreme but worthy. The midrange conveys dialogue realistically, effectively. And the rear-channels perk up with crowd noises and musical enhancement. There is nothing about the sound to draw attention to itself, yet there is nothing to complain about, either.

Look for three primary extras on the disc, or two if you count the pair of audio commentaries as the same thing. The first audio commentary is with the subject of the story himself, Vince Papale, plus producer Mark Ciardi, and writer Brad Gann. The second commentary is with director Ericson Core and editor Jerry Greenberg. If you're not into audio commentaries, there is a twenty-five-minute documentary on the making of the film, "Becoming Invincible: The Vince Papale Story," featuring the filmmakers and the real Papale and Vermeil. Beyond those items, there are sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at eight other Disney products; English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
"Vince Papale played three-and-a-half seasons with the Eagles. In 1981 Dick Vermeil led the Eagles to Super Bowl XV. Vince Papale currently resides in New Jersey with his wife Janet and their two children."

Papale is a genuine inspiration to millions of people, a real-life Rocky. He's "the football walk-on who defied football logic." It's good to see the movie do him justice.


Film Value