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It's the Losers That We Love

Because winners are hard to identify with, the best sports films star underdogs like us.

August 20, 2000|JOHN CLARK

There's a moment in the new football movie, "The Replacements," that may give viewers pause. The film asks us to root for a bunch of has-beens and never-wases who are replacing striking football players.

They've been plucked from obscurity, working as bouncers, a sumo wrestler, a bar owner, a cop, a convenience store clerk, a boat bottom scraper. One of them is in the slammer. They're thrilled to be here. The pros, on the other hand, are a collection of preening, spoiled narcissists with tailored leisure wear and fancy cars who don't appreciate what they've got. It's easy to hate these guys. Then one of the pros, star quarterback Eddie Martel, crosses the picket line and joins the team of misfits for a crucial game, which means benching replacement quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves). Martel tells the disgruntled team, "I've got two Super Bowl rings!"

For a moment the audience might think, "This guy is a winner. We don't care how much of a jerk he is. Play him." But the moment doesn't last. Our allegiance is not to the standings, but to the movie. The irony here is that audiences will pay very good money to see Martel play in real life, but they won't pay to see a Martel-like character on screen. Why? Because, though he's a winner--or especially because he's a winner--he's not one of us.

He has the hair, the clothes, the cars, the rings, the women, the endorsements, the accolades, the entourage and, most important, the money. We have softball, Burger King and the Gap. What does he have to say to us, or we to him? There's a chasm here, and filmmakers recognize it.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, the sports star was the hero against the establishment, and now he is the establishment," says writer-director Ron Shelton, perhaps the most successful, and certainly the most prolific, maker of sports movies in Hollywood history. "Now he's buying and owning teams and makes a hundred times more than the manager. The enormous salaries that the athletes make, which I think is deserved, makes them less interesting and more distant, more effete, more difficult to communicate with.

"I'm always more interested in people outside the gate than inside the gate," he continues. "I identify with them more. And I think we identify with people who are trying to get into the spotlight more readily than people who are already there or who have made it."

Shelton played minor league baseball in the late '60s and early '70s, and has directed such sports films as "Bull Durham" (1988, about a minor league ballplayer), "White Men Can't Jump" (1992, playground hustlers), "Cobb" (1994, a monstrous baseball legend), "Tin Cup" (1996, a driving range instructor who qualifies for the U.S. Open) and "Play It to the Bone," (1999, over-the-hill boxers get chance at redemption). With the exception of "Cobb,"' all of these films were about characters who are cut from the same cloth as Shane Falco. They've blown it, they're not quite good enough, they're on the outside looking in.

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The most successful sports franchise in films, the "Rocky" series (1976-1990), about the boxing lunk Rocky Balboa, took off from this premise. Who wouldn't root for a guy who does his training in a meat locker? But these films became less interesting as Rocky--and likewise Sylvester Stallone, the actor who created him--became more successful and the filmmakers struggled to find obstacles for him to overcome, like saving Western civilization.

A variant on the rags-to-riches story is the rags-to-riches-to-rags story. A special place in this cannon is reserved for "Raging Bull" (1980), in which boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) is done in by the demons that made him a champion in the first place. Though "Raging Bull" was considered by many critics to be the best movie of the '80s, it wasn't a huge hit, perhaps because viewers had a hard time sympathizing with La Motta's rage and paranoia. What's to root for?

In a more contemporary vein, Oliver Stone visited the rise-and-fall trajectory in last year's pro football saga "Any Given Sunday." In the film, the back-up quarterback (Jamie Foxx) is likable to a point--that point being when he becomes a star. Then he starts acting like a jerk who needs to get his comeuppance.

Of course, some filmmakers charge ahead anyway and make movies about, as Shelton puts it, "people who are already there." In last summer's "For Love of the Game," Kevin Costner plays an aging star pitcher who revisits his career and life while pitching his last game. Sure, Billy Chapel (Costner's character) is losing his stuff and his girl, but he's tooling around in a Porsche and crying all the way to the bank (plus he gets the girl anyway). Contrast that to Costner's Crash Davis in "Bull Durham," a career minor leaguer dealing with his own sense of failure. Audiences loved Crash but didn't seem to care about Billy, and "For Love of the Game" flopped at the box office.

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