“When the Game Stands Tall” shapes a familiar underdog scenario from the real-life story of Concord, California’s De La Salle High School football team. The team’s super-dedicated, gifted coach, Bob Ladouceur, led De La Salle’s Spartans through a 151 consecutive winning streak and 20 undefeated seasons.
The movie, which was shot last year in New Orleans, a city that has its own De La Salle High School, opens in 2003 with a quick survey of “The Streak.” During a blur of headlines and cheers, LSU Tigers coach Les Miles shows up in a cameo as an admiring onlooker.
Ladouceur, played by Jim Caviezel, stands at the center of the team’s success. Coach Lad, as his players call him, is a former theology student who stumbled into coaching. His heart-to-heart, warm-up words retain an element of spirituality.
“Commitment,” he tells his players. “Accountability. Perfect effort. And finally love.”
In other ways, too, Ladouceur is not a worldly being. When an offer to coach at Cal State reaches him he dismisses it. “Sounds like all of the other college offers,” he tells his wife, Bev.
Bev, played by the earnest but underused Laura Dern, is frustrated by her husband’s devotion to the team. She also puts up with him being an absentee father during football season. “When the Game Stands Tall” makes a workmanlike, if uninspiring, effort to present the tough times that the coach, his family and the players endure.
But the winning and losing of football games already being such an emotional subject, it’s a surprise that “When the Game Stands Tall” doesn’t summon more emotion. The film pulls back from the deeper feelings, both joyful and tragic, it might have stirred.
Directed by Thomas Carter (“Save the Last Dance,” “Coach Carter”) from a screenplay and story by Scott Marshall Smith and David Zelon, “When the Game Stands Tall” plays by the conventional sports drama playbook. There’s lots of melodrama and a swelling musical score.
Despite the melodrama, the team’s big comeback is underwhelming. The movie, timed to the start of football season, feels as if it was made more for the sake of box office receipts than the love of the game. Great sports movies, of course, inspire even people who don’t love the game.
And Caviezel renders Ladouceur, the great coach, as a question mark. Ladouceur is driven in the film, but he’s also one-dimensional and too enigmatic to grasp.
Assistant coach Terry Eidson is similarly incomplete. Michael Chiklis (“The Shield”) makes Eidson a lively second-in-command, but the character is mostly played for comic relief.
There’s better characterization in some of the team’s players, notably Stephan James’ tragic line-backer Terrance “T.K.” Kelly, Ser’Darius Blain’s conflicted Cam and Jesse T. Usher’s fictional contrarian, Tayshon. But Clancy Brown’s bullying football dad, difficult though such fanatical parents are, is a stereotype shaped for a movie script.
In the end, “When the Game Stands Tall” fails at its basic mission, to lift an audience in the thrill of hard-won victory.
‘When the Game Stands Tall’
STARRING: Jim Caviezel, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Jesse T. Usher
DIRECTOR: Thomas Carter
NOW SHOWING: In wide release
RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 55 min
MPAA RATING: PG. Parents urged to give parental guidance. May contain some material parents may not like for young children.
Excellent (HHHH), Good (HHH), Fair (HH), Poor (H)