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Goofy Vs. the Gipper

Modern-day movie athletes can't run or throw, but they score box-office TDs.

November 28, 1998|MICHAEL X. FERRARO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Heads up, sports-cinema fans. In case you missed it, the Gipper has officially been touchdown-sized from the local multiplex.

The mythical Notre Dame player portrayed by Ronald Reagan in "Knute Rockne, All American" and his heroic ilk have been indefinitely benched in favor of "The Waterboy."

The substitution speaks volumes. In trading high values for low blows, studios and producers have opted for a game plan of instant gratification. This certainly makes sense in an era when the term "box-office gross" is more often than not a double-entendre.

Long gone are the halcyon days when the life stories of legendary sports figures like Rockne, Lou Gehrig and Joe Louis graced the silver screen. For all kinds of reasons, gentle, graceful giants are out, and spasmodic Cajun hydrophiles are lapping the field.

Even plain old underdogs have become passe. If you're looking to make a jock flick that puts fans in the seats, the main characters need to be ultra-colorful (to put it mildly), preferably along the lines of ex-cons ("Major League"), street hustlers ("White Men Can't Jump") or drunken losers toting Amish bowlers around the country ("Kingpin").

Which is not to suggest that this formula is infallible. A glance down the roster of recent failed efforts in this direction also reveals the proto-stoner duo of "BASEketball," the supernatural silliness of "The Sixth Man," and the bloated boxing caricatures from "The Great White Hype." Yet even these films generally manage to garner enough of the frat-house demographic to warrant further forays in the goofball genre.

On the flip side of that particular coin, the ticket-buying public is avoiding "serious" sports films as if they were Clippers basketball games. Robert Towne's "Without Limits" died at the box office, despite critical raves. Believe it or not, that early summer flame-out was the second film biography of the late American distance runner Steve Prefontaine released in the past two years (the first was "Pre" in 1997).

The latest statistics prove that Cinderella stories have dropped the ball. It has been years since "Hoosiers" and "Field of Dreams" warmed our hearts and heated up the box office.

Since then, the only two high-profile "inspirational" athletic stories to do well in the marketplace have arguably benefited more from star power (Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna in "A League of Their Own") and overtly P.C. story lines (again, the gender-oppressed women from "A League of Their Own," as well as the geographically and racially anomalous Jamaican bobsledders in the surprise hit "Cool Runnings").

Otherwise, it's almost completely been a lineup of athletes who belong, well, in a lineup. Or, at the least, in therapy.

Quite obviously, sports raunch has superseded sports inspiration as the viewers' choice. But why? Here are the three strikes against old-school Hollywood sports films: In other words, replicating the electrifying, visceral nature of real-life sports drama on celluloid is virtually impossible. In a world where computer graphics can bring us realistic tableaux of insects wielding laser guns, simple sporting action generally looks all too staged or, at best, unconvincingly body-doubled.

All too rare are the Robert Redfords ("The Natural," "Downhill Racer"), the Wesley Snipeses ("Major League," "White Men Can't Jump"), the Kevin Costners ("Bull Durham," "Tin Cup") and the Nick Noltes ("North Dallas Forty"), actors who can simultaneously play a role and a game with skill.

Generally, close-ups of film stars in athletic action are cringe-inducing. Just ask any self-respecting ESPN viewer about Tim Robbins' form as a pitcher in the otherwise highly credible "Bull Durham." Under the category of "least sporting actor," see also: Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty in "Bang the Drum Slowly,"--though De Niro was very believable as a boxer, Jake La Motta, in "Raging Bull"--and Shaquille O'Neal (free throws only) in "Blue Chips."

So what better way to eliminate authenticity from the equation than by making the actor's skill level deliberately laughable? Pro football coaches Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher may have made cameos in "Waterboy," but Sandler's tackling technique appeared to be something out of a Tex Avery cartoon.

It is no great revelation that modern-day jocks have basically worn out their welcome with the general public. The prevalent perception of unbridled egos, greed and bad sportsmanship has greatly tarnished what used to be the god-like status of world-class athletes (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to the contrary).

Paralleling the cultural demise of their political counterparts in the post-Watergate era, the sporting heroes of the establishment slipped quite a few notches in the early to mid-'70s.

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