LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - The religion of high-school football commingles with plain old-fashioned religion in "When the Game Stands Tall," an inspirational sports drama (from Sony's in-house, faith-based label Affirm Films) that goes long on rectitudinous sermonizing but comes up short on gridiron thrills or genuine love for the game. Save for a couple of fine performances relegated to the sidelines, no one really brings their "A" game to this lazily executed late-summer programmer a "Friday Night Lights" for the Sunday School crowd graced by little of the storytelling craft and skillful emotional manipulation that have distinguished the recent wave of superior Disney sports pics. After an opening weekend that may see a bump from church group sales, expect "Game" to do most of its rushing and passing on home screens.
Like most entries in this particular genre, "When the Game Stands Tall" traffics in the usual tropes of scrappy heroes and come-from-behind victories -- except that, in this case, the underdogs are more like alpha dogs, and they don't go from last to first so much as from first to second and back again. But then, there's more to life than just winning -- a mantra the movie announces with such frequency and fervor that if you don't leave the theater with it ringing in your head, you should head straight for the nearest ear doctor. When our story begins in the fall of 2003, the De La Salle High School Spartans of tree-lined Concord, CA are coming to the end of yet another undefeated season that has left them with the longest unbroken winning streak -- 151 games -- in American sports history. But dark clouds loom on the horizon: a large chunk of the team's starting lineup is due to graduate in the spring, and the underclassmen waiting to take their places seem to lack a certain team spirit.
"The streak was never our goal," says the Spartans' mild-mannered coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), a religious studies teacher at this private Catholic enclave who preaches the gospel of good sportsmanship (with a bit of Luke and Matthew thrown in for good measure) and rarely opens his mouth without some similarly honeyed homily dropping out of it. It's not giving much away to say that De La Salle's streak does come to an ignominious end, but not before good Coach L almost meets his maker thanks to a massive coronary (prefigured, in a mark of director Thomas Carter's ham-fisted style, by multiple close-ups of Coach's cigarette stash).
Five stents later, Ladouceur is good as new, but somehow the Spartans' mojo isn't quite working. Some of the cocky new players don't seem to understand that there's no "i" in "team," and everyone is shattered when beloved linebacker Terrance T.K. Kelly (Stephan James) is killed in a random act of urban violence (prefigured by risible cliche images of malt-liquor-swilling revelers bumping and grinding to Montell Jordan). Still, "When the Game Stands Tall" has already been on the screen for nearly an hour by the time the Spartans finally lose, during an away game against a national-championship Seattle team -- the proverbial inciting incident that most screenplay manuals tell you to include no later than page 15.
A shot at redemption hovers in the form of a ballyhooed game against a Long Beach team with a 330-pound offensive tackle. But as this sluggish film winds its way towards that inevitable showdown, it generates little in the way of rooting interests. In adapting Neil Hayes's nonfiction book, screenwriters Scott Marshall Smith ("Men of Honor") and David Zelon have painted nearly every character into a blandly stereotypical corner, whether it's the golden-boy running back (Alexander Ludwig) with a hard-driving booster dad (a snarling, mustache-twirling Clancy Brown); Ladouceur's own wide receiver son (Matthew Daddario), on hand mainly to grouse things like, "When I needed a dad, I got a coach, and now when I need a coach, you want to be a dad"; and Ladouceur himself, the kind of secular saint who tosses lucrative college coaching offers into the trash bin as if they were yesterday's fishwrap. (Doing by far the best work in the film, Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern manage to suggest glimmers of inner lives as, respectively, Ladouceur's longtime assistant coach and acquiescenct, helpmeet wife.)
Carter, a proficient journeyman director who did a modestly more energetic job with 2005's high-school basketball drama "Coach Carter," never seems to get inside the world of the movie. His football scenes lack any visceral, bone-crunching impact, and when he ventures off the field, the movie fails to foster the sense of family and community that drive the best sports dramas. Carter's leafy NoCal suburbs and their adjacent war-torn ghettos have all the neighborhood feel of the Warner Brothers backlot.
Even a better director, though, might have been at a loss to solve a problem like Caviezel. When the real Ladouceur appears ion documentary footage under the movie's end credits, he seems a stern but folksy, avuncular figure, a bit like a more athletic Garrison Keillor. But Caviezel turns him into a dour ascetic who scarcely cracks a smile and suffers profoundly for each of his players who fails to grasp the true meaning of "Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." It's a comically self-serious turn, but at least it's interesting in a way that little else in "When the Game Stands Tall" manages to be. It is sometimes said that a great actor can take dross and make it sound like Shakespeare. Here, Caviezel takes "Hoosiers" and plays it as though he were still nailed to the cross.