I like sport. At its best it can capture the sort of high emotion that movies can only dream of. Problem is these moments are few and far between, and not knowing about them in advance is a royal pain in the ass. May 2005 and I was invited to the pub to see Liverpool take on AC Milan in the Champions League Final. The game fell at the end of a hellish day in the office and faced with two hours in a noisy pub watching what would no doubt be a boring tactical affair I chose to hit the hay instead. With so much at stake in the biggest annual footie match both teams normally shut up shop, scared witless of putting a foot wrong. And nothing drags like ninety minutes of crap football. Alas, I awoke the following morning to a mass of text messages from friends berating me for missing one of the best football matches of all time. I vowed never to miss the Final from that day forth but another match of equal seat-edged excitement has yet to materialise. The hours I’ve wasted watching rubbish sporting events in the hope of being thrilled by a contest worthy of Muhammed Ali or Ayrton Senna must equate to a good few wasted years. Most of these hours were dumped in the arse-numbing tediousness dustbin. It’s the classic sports fan denial, that their chosen game is constantly enthralling rather than the bore-fest it is the majority of the time. If you to have suffered one too many "classic” sports clashes take solace in this collection of predetermined but thrill a minute bouts. Cinema might lack the spontaneity of a great game of football but when it comes to guaranteed action you know a cheesy tale of sporting daring-do will never leave you high and dry. They reek of cliché, they are over sentimental, they are three worlds removed from reality, but for years they have fulfilled the dreams of sporting fans the world over. Cheesy sports flicks reach the parts real sport has no hope of tickling. Revel in the glory of these ten legendary clashes.
- LE MANS (1971)
Steve McQueen was something special. As well as being a tremendous actor he was a bonafide superstar, the sort of man that could have carved out a career in whatever profession he chose. One of the man’s more prolific talents was his ability to chuck motorbikes and sports cars around with flair and style. It was remarked by a number of stunt driving professionals that McQueen could have tried his hand at motorsport with quite a bit of success. Having already displayed his biking talents in The Great Escape (1963) and his wheel-handling skills in Bullitt (1968) the actor really needed a movie to distil his driving prowess into one concentrated character. Lee H Katzin’s 1971 motor racing epic Le Mans was just the right vehicle. The famous French race being set over twenty four hours it provided a wide canvas on which to paint realistic car racing mayhem. It also afforded McQueen some valuable out of car time (the Le Mans racers being piloted by three drivers alternating driving duties) to develop a more character driven subplot. McQueen plays an American driver returning to the race a year after he suffered a shattering crash and injury in the competition. It’s a slim plot, and the off track events do sag somewhat, but the film is all about the racing and the long drive to the chequered flag. The tarmac action is some of the best burnt rubber ever seen in the movies, complete with a couple of spectacular crashes. And it was all captured during the greatest age of motor racing, that late sixties / early seventies era when the likes of Graham Hill and James Hunt were Gods among men. The inevitable climax should see McQueen screaming past the finish line in first place but the plot takes the less predictable route to its riveting conclusion.
Tasty Morsel – Giving insurers the ultimate headache McQueen continued his habit of getting behind the wheel during production, often exceeding speeds of 200mph on the long straights of the old Le Mans circuit.
- ROLLERBALL (1975)
Lets be honest; the only reason most of us watch sport is to see some sanctioned violence. I watch rugby and boxing in hope of seeing some huge men beat the crap out of each other. I subject myself to motor racing for the chance of seeing a spectacular twenty car midair crash. Most of time I go home empty handed. If you to often find your blood lust unquenched behold the wonder that is Rollerball (1975). Earth’s future might be bleak with the delights of global recession and warming to look forward to, but at least forthcoming generations will give sport a much needed kick up the ass. Norman Jewison’s 1975 film presents a dystopian future where people’s only outlet for violent feelings is the global sport of Rollerball. Played on an oval track with a banked wooden surface, each team has a small round goal into which the opposing team must slam a solid metal ball. The two teams consist of men on roller-skates, replete with metal-studded gloves, helmets and shoulder pads. Each team also has a small number of thugs on motorbikes. The rules are never made clear and almost anything is allowed in order to stop the other team from scoring. Much shuddering hostility ensues as James Caan’s Jonathon E, the sports top megastar, has to fight the world’s controlling forces who want him out of the game for good. As a glimpse into the future of sport it makes for a fascinating insight. You think we place our sports stars on high pedestals at the moment? Rollerball is the logical progression of this insane hero worship, a star so powerful the suits in charge want him permanently erased from the playing field. Jewison’s vision of Earth in 2018 may look a bit dated these days but the plot’s striking message remains. As does the rollicking violence, a tantalising collision between American football, roller-hockey and speedway. If only the Barclays Premiership featured such hard-nosed combatants. Avoid the awful 2002 remake.
Tasty Morsel – Such was the popularity of the film some over enthusiastic and clearly bonkers fans talked about setting up their rollerball league.
- ESCAPE TO VICTORY (1981)
In between bouts of fisticuffs emerging American superstar Sylvester Stallone tried his hand at the beautiful game with Escape to Victory (1981). What plays like a cross between Match of the Day and The Great Escape (1963) was loosely based on a true story. Legend has it that during World War II a team of Dynamo Kiev players were challenged to a match by the German occupying forces in the Ukraine. Despite the risk of angering their captors the Kiev team played on to victory, landing them in a POW camp for their troubles. In similar fashion directors John Huston and Robert Riger crafted a daring tale of Allied Forces sticking it to the Bosch on the footie field. Football doesn’t make for the easiest sport to turn into a cinematic masterpiece. Wisely, the filmmaker chose to focus half the movie on the build up to the big game, including Stallone’s escape and recapture. His eventual inclusion in the Allied starting eleven came courtesy of cinema’s most painful arm break. To prepare for the role of Yankee goalkeeper Robert Hatch, Stallone trained with England legend Gordon Banks. But the soccer superstar inclusion didn’t stop at the sidelines. Accompanying Stallone and Michael Caine (surely a perfect England football captain in another life) on screen were Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and footballing deity Pelé. Their involvement ensured that for all the Boys Own heroics of the climatic match (an epic final score-line of four goals apiece) the footie itself remained believable. Many other on-field parts were filled out by Ipswich Town players, delighted to have a taste of Hollywood. For English viewers this sporting microcosm of World War II, stuffing the Germans with help from our faithful Allied brothers, was almost as good as capturing the Jules Rimet in 1966.
Tasty Morsel – It is alleged that Stallone wanted to score the winning goal for the Allied Team until it was explained to him how ludicrous it would be for a goalkeeper to score a goal.
- ROCKY III (1982)
Rocky (1976) may have nabbed the Oscar glory and Rocky II (1979) might have placed championship gold around Rocky’s waist, but any fan of the franchise will tell you that Balboa’s best outing was this entertaining clash between the serious Academy Award winning Rocky and the brash one-liner Rocky of the latter outings. Stallone got behind the camera to direct and saw to it that part three held all the trump cards when it came to iconic Rocky moments. Introduction of boxing anthem "Eye of the Tiger”; check. Crowd pleasing team up with one time enemy Apollo Creed; check. Death of elderly mentor Mickey; check. Awesome training montage in awful eighties style long socks; check. Stallone also found a proper nasty villain for Balboa to get to grips with in the form of Clubber Lang (everyone actually quite liked Muhammed Ali knock-off Apollo), having the good sense to have his hero lose to the mohawked thug in the film’s early running. With an eye for iconic characters Stallone even had the intelligence to throw his casting net outside the realms of Hollywood, introducing the world to the colourful talents of wrestler Hulk Hogan and future A-Teamer Mr. T. By the time Rocky and Lang are staggering around the screen in their second clash you’ll be on your feet screaming for Balboa to land that final knockout blow. Of course it all ends happily, with Lang humbled at the feet of Stallone’s Middleweight, sorry Heavyweight, hero. The cheers were quick to fade though when the bah-humbug combo of Rocky IV (1985) and Rocky V (1990) killed off the likeable Creed and robbed Balboa or his fame, money and dignity. Thank goodness Stallone set things straight with a reasonable return to the ring in Rocky Balboa (2006).
Tasty Morsel – Stallone originally wanted to use Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust in the movie but thankfully had to settle on Survivor’s epic Eye Of The Tiger.
- THE COLOUR OF MONEY (1984)
Sports don’t get much more staid than snooker. Hushed crowds of pensioners, spectacle wearing players in ironed waistcoats, snails pace tournaments; it’s hardly the stuff of renowned storytelling. Hence the lack of a high-octane snooker sub-genre in cinema. The American equivalent, pool, at least has the good sense to incorporate flashy trick shots and take place in smoky downtown bars frequented by salty types looking to hustle an easy buck. In 1963 director Robert Rossen brought a fine adaptation of this "sport” to the big screen with The Hustler (1963). Based on the 1959 Walter Tevis novel of the same name it followed pool shark "Fast Eddie” Felson and his battle with pool legend "Minnesota Fats”. Tevis wrote a follow-up novel in 1984, itself receiving the cinematic treatment two years later, The Colour of Money (1986). Second time around the movie strayed away from Tevis’ story (which followed Felson on a TV sports tour as he reprises his battle with Fats and adjusts from straight pool to nine-ball) focusing on the relationship between an aging Felson and young hot shot Vincent Lauria. Paul Newman slipped back into the Felson role with ease, securing the Academy Award for Best Actor in the process. For the upstart Vincent director Martin Scorsese called on the decade’s finest slick-willie, Tom Cruise. The combination of old master training young protégé only for the ungrateful youngster to leave his teacher in the dust is a staple of many a sports flick (see a jilted Balboa in Rocky V (1990)). But it was never more professionally presented than amongst Scorsese’s stick and ball adventure. The director wisely peppered the movie with top drawer acting talent (look out for John Turturro, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and a young Forest Whitaker amongst others). The supporting cast wonderfully propped up the enticing central duet between Cruise and Newman as they duelled over dollars and pockets, while Scorsese also dotted real life pool stars such as Steve Mizerak and Jimmy Mataya amongst proceedings for an extra slice of authenticity.
Tasty Morsel - Following the Method approach Tom Cruise learnt and performed all but one of the trick shots carried out in the movie.
- TEEN WOLF (1985)
Cinema relies on cliché. Recognisable story traits drive plots forward in all the ways that are pleasing to viewers. But when it comes to cliché the sports movie is often so deep in them it drowns spectacularly. The cheesy training montage, the bitter feud between two rivals (usually with a desirable woman thrown in between them for good measure), the big final bout when the feeble become great and sink a game wining shot with seconds to spare. These chestnuts are the sporting film’s bread and butter, but it’s a rare movie that dices with them successfully. Throwing a little horror comedy into the mix was all director Rob Daniel and writer Jeph Loeb had to do to turn chestnuts into gold. In Teen Wolf (1985) eighties legend Michael J. Fox plays Scott Howard, a small kid scrambling to be popular with his basketball teammates. When he discovers that his family are cursed with werewolfism he uses his new found lycanthropy to his advantage. In werewolf form Scott is a demon on the basketball court and soon leads his high school team to success. With on court heroics comes off court popularity and Scott soon catches the eye of the school bimbo. When Scott’s best mate cashes in on the new werewolf mania Scott decides to win the final showdown match against their biggest high school rivals without the help of his hairy super powers. The sugary sweet "be happy with who you really are” morality tale would be too much to swallow but for the overwhelming amiability of Fox. It really is impossible not to root for him in the film’s final moments. It was also a brave decision by director Daniel to dump the film’s gimmick for the concluding act and let Scott secure the win on his own terms. The winning formula produced an average follow-up Teen Wolf Too (1987) in which Jason Bateman as Scott’s cousin Todd uses his werewolf abilities to excel on his high school boxing team.
Tasty Morsel – The film also inspired a 1986 cartoon spin off series. A third film, starring Alyssa Milano was also once in the pipeline.
- HOOSIERS / BEST SHOT (1986)
There is a heavy sense of cynicism here in the UK about American sports. British sporting conservatism can’t stand all this pom-pom shaking, cheerleadering, flag waving sensationalism. But there is a reason the FA Cup has died on its arse while the Super Bowl gets bigger and better each year; love it or loathe it you can’t deny the entertainment value in American sports. A similar jingoistic attitude runs through American sports cinema. There is very little self-depreciation in the genre but there are some brilliant tales of over coming the odds. One of the finest of these is director David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers (1986) (renamed Best Shot for us fickle UK viewers). Our hero is Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a basketball coach drafted in to turn around the fortunes of the hapless Hickory High School. Norman carries some hefty baggage, losing his previous coaching position after he hit one of the kids on his team. His methods of coaching also don’t sit favourable with the local parents, choosing to focus on solid defensive play rather than brash offence. When the school’s best player Jimmy leaves the team to focus on his studies the writing is on the wall for coach Dale. But when Jimmy decides to come back, only on the basis that coach Dale remains, Hickory plough on to a dramatic showdown in the State Championship game. It takes broad shoulders and keen acting chops to carry a story as cheesy as this, but the film is guided effortlessly by Hackman’s sure hand. Lightening the load is Dennis Hopper as Shooter, the town drunk and the father of one of the boys on the team. The relationship between Dale and Shooter is an affecting one, Dale trusting in the drunk’s basketball knowledge despite his inebriated state. But it’s the boys film come the final scenes and the last minute game winner from Jimmy is as inspirational a film moment as there has been before or since, whiffy cheddar and all.
Tasty Morsel – The film was loosely based on the true story of the 1954 Milan High School team who beat the odds to become Indiana State Champions.
- TIN CUP (1996)
How to make golf exciting; that’s a humdinger of a problem. It certainly explains the lack of golfing movies (Follow The Sun (1951), Dead Solid Perfect (1988), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) err, a little help?…). But if anyone can overcome this Everest of sporting conundrums its Kevin Costner, the man who made baseball palatable with the slushy Field of Dreams (1988). Costner is on laidback and lazy form as disgraced golf pro Roy "Tin Cup” McAvoy. When he falls for his shrink Dr. Molly Griswold (Rene Russo) he decides to steal her heart by winning the US Open. He also aims to exact revenge on arrogant rival golfer Davis Simms (Don Johnson) who insulted Roy by offering him the job of caddying for him during the tournament. The slow pace of golf is carried effortlessly by the movie, injecting superb comic moments along the way as Roy wins some unlikely rounds with nothing but a seven-iron and a golf bag full of household implements, shovel and pool-cue included. The banter with Roy’s long suffering friend and caddy Romeo (Cheech Marin) also raises smiles. But it is the admirable support of Russo and Johnson that launch the movie into hole-in-one territory. Russo is able to pull chemistry out of the most stony acting partner, and the relationship she forges with Costner sparkles with sincerity. Johnson makes for a super slimy villain to, trading on his slick Miami Vice honed persona and fooling Roy with a superb long-drive challenge, "Still going”. The dialogue between the lead trio zings with sarcasm and one-liners so wonderful the golf almost takes a back seat. When the time comes for Roy to grasp the main prize instead of the Hollywood predictability of a first place finish director Ron Shelton wisely went for the less obvious win; far from a podium place but no less exciting.
Tasty Morsel – For added realism Shelton peppered his film with a number of real golf pros and personalities. Keep your eyes peeled for Craig Stadler, Phil Mickelson, Gary McCord and Jim Nantz.
- FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004)
American Football is tailor made for the big screen. Its stop-start structure provides excellent opportunities for exposition, dialogue exchange and tension building. The explosive violence satisfies the action crowd. The strategic, everyman-doing-their-part gameplay invokes the best war film clichés. The fact that the US footie is America’s biggest sport might explain the large number of gridiron movies, but its natural transition to cinemas has just as much to do with its success. From Wildcats (1986), Rudy (1993) and Remember The Titans (2000) to Jerry Maguire (1996), Any Given Sunday (1999) and Invincible (2006) gridiron wipes the floor with every other sport in the great movie stakes. One of the best films to strap on shoulder pads was Peter Berg’s 2004 adaptation of the H.G. Bissenger’s bestselling book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team And A Dream. The book focused on the Texas town of Odessa and its high school football team the Permian Panthers. The off pitch stories became even more compelling than the on field battles, as Bissenger discovered a small town whose life revolved almost exclusively around the success of its school football team. The pressure and expectation it placed on the boys in the team made for uncomfortable reading. With a cast of largely unknown actors (with the exception of Billy Bob Thornton as team coach) Berg perfectly captured every nuance of the book. The struggles of the various players as they balance difficult home lives, superstar status amongst the townsfolk, potential career ending injuries and the chasing of a sporting dream that can lead them out of the dead-end dustbowl of their home town is mesmerising, sad and uplifting all at once. The young cast of players, particularly Lucas Black as team quarterback Mike, are a revelation having to shoulder the hefty stories of their Permian counterparts.
Tasty Morsel – The success of the film lead to a television show of the same name that ran for five seasons.
- WARRIOR (2011)
You might think that with the amount of critical plaudits Warrior (2011) garnered it’s anything but a cheese fest. But the cheese is there, its just covered with a thick layer of bready acting talent. For the uninitiated mixed martial arts (MMA) is the fastest growing sport of the twenty first century. Ignorant people call it cage fighting but its actually a combination of boxing, wrestling, karate, kick-boxing and any other combat sport fighters want to bring into the ring. Suddenly boxing looks very tired and outdated. With MMA growing fast it demanded its own Rocky (1976). Early attempts such as Ultimate Champions (2008) and Unrivaled (2010) were cheap and packed with real fighters who lacked the acting chops to carry the scripts. But then Gavin O’Connor brought in the heavyweight acting talent of Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, and Joel Edgerton for Warrior. It worked a treat and MMA had the film it deserved. So what about the cheese? Try two estranged brothers competing against the odds in a two night sixteen man tournament, with their former drunk father pitched in between them, a former wrestling star (Kurt Angle) as an unstoppable opponent (shades of Rocky III) and cavalcade of characters cheering them on, from former army mates, school children and teary wives. What masks these clichés so well is the remarkable performances from all involved (particular props to Nolte for his tear-jerking, Moby Dick spouting return to the bottle) and the fact that in real life MMA bouts are often as crazy and exciting as the jaw smashing tournament finale. Boxing can never hope to match the fireworks of Rocky’s unrealistic fisticuffs, but the back catalogues of UFC, Pride and other MMA organisations have moments and fights that more than match the Conlon brother’s scrapes.
Tasty Morsel – UFC fans will spot Octagon regulars Anthony Johnson, Nate Marquardt, Rashad Evans, and Stephan Bonnar