Remembering To Stand Tall: When The Game Stands Tall
A high school sets a very impressive record for wins, then faces new challenges as a team in When The Game Stands Tall. In 2003, California's De La Salle Spartans concluded their gridiron campaign by taking their winning streak to 151 games and taking their division's state championship. Shortly after that, their head coach, Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), suffers a heart attack that nearly kills him, and is ordered to stay away from all football activities by his cardiologist. The off-season practices and preparations, as a result, fall to his assistant, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis). Then, one of his graduating players, Terrance Kelly (Stephan James), is shot dead just before he was scheduled to head away to college. Once Coach Lad, as he's often called, gets clearance to return, he watches the school's thirteen-year unbeaten string end with two consecutive losses to begin the 2004 season. When they need a win against another California prep school powerhouse, the Spartans find a way back to the win column. They come home to cheering fans calling the victory the start of "Streak 2.0."
That sentiment does not sit well with Ladouceur, who cares more about character than streaks. He knows De La Salle must keep winning to qualify for postseason play, but he needs to keep the fan enthusiasm from becoming a distraction. With all the time he spends with the team, Bob's wife, Bev (Laura Dern), who enjoyed having him at home during his leave, asks him for a little more family time, especially for their son Danny (Matthew Daddario), who's one of the seniors on the football team. The Spartans also have a talented running back in Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), who has the opportunity to set the state touchdown record in his senior season. While the coach never actively pushes Chris to set the record, the teen's father, Mickey (Clancy Brown), demands it from his son. Running the table on the remaining regular season puts De La Salle back in the playoffs, and allows Chris to make a run at that mark.
When The Game Stands Tall, which is based on Neil Hayes's book about the De La Salle team, has good game sequences, but lacks the emotional punch of other football movies, such as Friday Night Lights, We Are Marshall, and The Blind Side. The characters have appeal, but director Thomas Carter, who's best known for playing high school basketball star James Hayward on The White Shadow, handles the movie in a predictable and stereotypical fashion. When Terrance dies, his best friend, Cam Colvin (Ser'Darius Blain), has to make some hard choices about his personal and gridiron future, and do it in a way to honor his friend's memory. Chris gets his chance at the record book, but he takes a look at the situation that would give him the mark. A reserve player who has never taken the field as a member of the varsity helps to keep an opponent from scoring when the first string, who play both offense and defense, need a break in a close match. Nothing comes as a surprise or a great pleasure, though the film was adequate. When The Game feels like a TV movie that somehow made its way to the big screen.
The performances were fine, though mostly not outstanding. Caviezel is very low-key as Coach Ladouceur, who looks for players who lead both on the field and between games. Chiklis is a little better as Eidson, the quietly effective and devoted coach who believes in Coach Lad's ways as much as the head coach does. In addition to Ludwig, other actors who did nice work in supporting roles include Jessie Small as Tayshon Lanear, a hot shot whose game gets a big dose of humility, and Joe Massingill as Joe Beaser, a hard-working lineman who takes the challenges as they come. Brown, though, has the best supporting performance as Mickey Ryan, the parent who never seems to have as much fun at the games as everyone else. He's always upset when the game doesn't revolve around his son's record quest. Bob Ladouceur appears in the end credits in game footage with his team. Two of Ladouceur's NFL success stories - Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew and Bears linebacker D. J. Williams - also appear in the film. Also appearing in the end credits is Pro Football Hall Of Fame Coach John Madden, who speaks well of Coach Lad, and also wrote the foreward of Hayes's book.
I wish When The Game Stands Tall had lived up to its name on the big screen. The movie has sufficient good moments, but it needed to do more to capture the excitement of a very grounded team who set a mark that might never be broken. Instead, viewers get an array of sports cliches, and a film that would rather state facts than make these facts come to life. The film does stand, but will be more for football fans than people who don't follow the game.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give When The Game Stands Tall 2.5 stars. Remember the Spartans?