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Invincible

Out of Its League

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In 1976, the gung-ho new coach of football’s hapless Philadelphia Eagles, Dick Vermeil, held open tryouts, and one player made the team: speedy Vince Papale, a down-and-out South Philly bartender and furloughed substitute school-teacher. Papale was 30 and hadn’t donned pads since high school. But he had heart — which, combined with an ability to grimace convincingly while hustling downfield and being played by Mark Wahlberg, is all the makers of Invincible (dumb title!) needed.

Papale’s story — undeniably a good one — is true, as far as it goes. But it apparently didn’t go far enough for director Ericson Core and his producers, some of the same Disney teammates who brought you earlier feel-good, inspired-by-a-true-one sports movies Miracle and The Rookie. For instance, vintage game footage accompanying Invincible’s closing credits reveals how the filmmakers gilded special-teamer Papale’s big on-field redemption after a disastrous rookie debut.

Maybe it’s unfair to penalize for historical infidelity a mere sports flick, the sort whose plot boils down to: Nobody believed he could do it … but he did it. And Invincible is cornily charming, with a bulked-up Wahlberg ingratiating as a gifted but ambitionless lug who finds himself. Moreover, Core strives for an even-handed portrait of a typically demonized milieu, the ethnic inner city.

Some streets are filthy, but some are spotless; a homey church street fair counterpoints the corner-barful of losers (redeemable only by faith in Vince) where Papale pulls draughts part time.

Still, Invincible is vulnerable where many such movies are: inflating their subject’s importance. This can’t be simply one troubled guy, with the help of his old dad, a spunky girlfriend and a couple pals, getting it together to make a dream come true. It’s got to be about inspiring a whole economically sidelined and football-starved city. At least the filmmakers don’t make Papale responsible for rescuing the entire country, the task they set the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice-hockey team in Miracle.

Granted, Philadelphia is nearly as nuts about football as Pittsburgh is. But Invincible digs the city a grave too deep for a savior as modestly talented as Papale. (Maybe Dr. J would have done?) Even if the backup wide receiver bonded with Vermeil, as the film depicts, did the workaholic coach really say he could “build a team around” Papale — a man whose publicity-stunt stigma was, apparently, universally resented by his teammates?

Moreover, Invincible‘s Philly is plagued by labor strikes that Core gladly exploits, but renders incomprehensible through inadequate explanation. And then there’s racism — against Italian-American Papale, who’s shunned most cruelly by black Eagles. If the black players were at all justified in their attitude — perhaps sensing a Great White Hope in their midst? — Core fails to signal why as straightforwardly as he enunciates everything else in this earnest jock-o-drama.

Rating: 2 stars

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