'Invincible' a game effort despite some fumbles

THE UNSINKABLE sports-underdog formula, legendary Eagles folklore, the crackerjack visuals of NFL Films - all add up to just enough in "Invincible."

The movie, of course, is Hollywood's account of Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender who made the Philadelphia Eagles as a walk-on long shot in 1976 - a potentially rousing story that's told here in strikingly muted and low-key fashion.

"Invincible" is scheduled to open the same day as a late-summer exhibition game against the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers, so it seems timed to be an appetizer for the regular season - movie as tailgate party.

Fans pumped for a fist-pumping spectacle of a blue-collar, special teams mad-man crashing the invitation-only party of pampered NFL athletes, though, will have to adjust their expectations.

"Invincible" is made by the same people who produced "The Rookie," another true story of a pro-sports long shot, presented as a piece of Americana whose mood was set by tumbleweeds blowing across a desolate prairie.

The desolate spaces in "Invincible" are the empty midnight streets of South Philadelphia - writer Brad Gann and director Ericson Core work hard to establish a socio-economic context designed to make Papale (Mark Wahlberg) a source of inspiration to a down-on-its-luck city.

Really, really down on its luck. "Invincible" makes being an Eagles fan look like something that might be covered under Medicare - a condition marked by severe depression, alcoholism, and chronic unemployment.

The script sets up Papale as a laid-off teacher and bartender at a South Philly saloon, where he and his pals drink Yuengling (no Schmidts? Ortliebs?) and gripe about the hapless Eagles. When new coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) holds an open tryout, Papale's friends pester the sandlot legend to take a shot. So does Vince's father (Kevin Conway), who talks about how much it would mean to the workers at the embattled Westinghouse plant.

This is part of the modern sports movie playbook - it's not enough to be an underdog anymore, you have to be Seabiscuit - an iconic figure of hope for a beleaguered populace.

The movie's heart is in the right place, though, and sometimes it gets the details right - as when the penniless Papale asks to view news accounts of his Eagles tryout on an elderly neighbor's TV. The way the woman's console set is decorated with ceramic fruit, the way the woman sets up a metal TV tray heaped with food, all feel exactly right.

"Invincible" actually works best when it leaves the hard times (and a love interest subplot featuring Elizabeth Banks) behind and turns to football - on the field and in training camp, where Papale tries to impress Vermeil, and refute the cold stares of players who don't think he belongs. Opinions slowly change as the gutsy Papale carves out a place on the kick-off/return teams. Highlights include a few scenes of Papale getting grief (and survival tips) from his tough-love roommate, and action shots in some of the big-time NFL arenas where Papale gets his first game action. (NFL Films cameraman Steve Andrich provides some of the top-notch photography, including a wincingly convincing hit on Wahlberg. )

These scenes might have worked even better if Wahlberg had looked more like an NFL football player - there's something Pop Warnerish about his little body underneath that big helmet.

I was voted down in this by female associates, though, who insisted that what they termed Wahlberg's "tushy" was the most consistently watchable thing in the movie. I'll excuse myself from that debate.

Also, Wahlberg is forced (via the script) to play Papale as a kind of pro football Hamlet. To hit or not to hit, that is Mark's question. His Papale is nearly paralyzed by self-doubt to be recovered when he rediscovers his innate love of the game.

Not the qualities of an NFL special teams kamikaze, and by all accounts the real Papale was a less conflicted football player, certainly never in doubt as to his purpose on the field. The Eagles coaches awarded a "Who's Nuts" T-shirt to the most fearless special teams kamikaze, and Papale won several as a rookie. You didn't win one of those by wondering if you belonged. *

Produced by Gord Gray, Mark Ciardi, Ken Mok, directed by Ericson Core, written by Brad Gann, music by Mark Isham, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

REVIEW B

INVINCIBLE

Parents' guide: PG

Running time: 104 minutes

Showing at: Area theaters

Vince Papale: Mark Wahlberg

Dick Vermeil: Greg Kinnear

Janet: Elizabeth Banks

Frank: Kevin Conway