Romance and drama win all the Oscars, for good reason.
Sport is trickier to pull off in the movies. Soccer, for example, only has a select few examples of when it is depicted in a way that would please fans of the actual sport.
One can rest assured that the likes of Martin Scorsese might include gritty realism like a misplaced pass or two and the indecipherable hand signals of modern day managers on the sidelines if he ever directed a soccer movie.
But more often than not, the temptation to include physics-defying bicycle kicks or geometrically impossible saves is too all-consuming for scriptwriters.
American sports tend to be fit in easier given the nature of gameplay. Unlike the free-flowing nature of soccer, American football’s more stop-start approach lends itself better to fitting in moments of drama while still evoking the reality of the sport.
For good reason, there is little to no live sport at the moment. But if you are going in search of fictional depictions, here are a few examples of sports movies worth perusing.
Director Bennett Miller and some hefty A-listers stepped up the plate to bring Michael Lewis’s acclaimed book to the big screen, delivering a brooding, melancholic picture that swerves away from cliché.
Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team who puts his faith in Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to help him somehow build a successful team on a shoestring budget.
Brand’s revolutionary stat-heavy scouting techniques allow Oakland to pick underrated diamonds from the rough, players no other top clubs are remotely interested in, and sparks a remarkable change in the team’s fortunes.
Watching Beane’s vision with increasing interest was Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (played here by Arliss Howard) – now the principal owner of Liverpool FC – who offered Beane an eye-watering deal to come to the Red Sox, which he declined.
Henry aped the Moneyball philosophy though, and it would ultimately see his team win the World Series.
Again Bennett Miller is in the director’s chair for this desperately sad and disturbing depiction of the true story that shook American sport to its core.
Steve Carell plays John du Pont, the wealthy, eccentric loner who attempts to recruit Olympic gold-winning brothers Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) to train his wrestling team in a purpose-built facility on Du Pont’s estate.
Terrific performances from the three leads married to an absorbing, tragic plot make this one of the most compelling sports movies of the last 20 years.
See also Team Foxcatcher, the excellent documentary that appeared on Netflix two years after the movie.
Well, how could it not be on here? Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay in three days after watching ageing underdog Chuck Wepner give Muhammad Ali a major scare in their heavyweight 1975 slugfest.
Sly refused to sell the script unless it was agreed he’d play the lead role. The studios eventually relented, depriving us the sight of Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford – both preferred choices for the role – jogging up the steps towards the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The movie has become so embedded in popular culture that it’s easy to forget how gritty it actually was. It’s easy to scoff at film critic Roger Ebert declaring at the time that Stallone reminded him of “a young Brando”. But it all holds up; Rocky has you against the ropes from the opening credits right up to that gloriously battered and bruised finale.
Oh and that bit at the start of the trailer where the chap in the market throws Rocky an orange? Completely real. They shot a lot of those scenes on the hoof in real locations with no paid extras.
Ah here… we think we have something in our eye. Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger is the wide-eyed American boy who dreams of playing college football for Notre Dame.
Rudy doesn’t have the grades or the money to get in though, and even if he did, the coaches think he’s too small.
So begins a journey that goes to a lot of low places before it swings back for an irresistibly treacly ending.
Sean Astin had already risen to prominence in The Goonies and would later land the role of Samwise Gangee in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. He’s perfect here as the plucky underdog with a big heart and a bigger dream. Now pass us those tissues.
Clash of the Ash (1987)
Hollywood hasn’t got around to creating a cottage industry around hurling movies as they have around US sports like baseball and American football and as they did with golf in the year 1996.
But we have at least one hurling movie to cherish, the 1987 flick ‘Clash of the Ash’. The film is centred around the hopes and dreams of young Phil Kelly (Liam Heffernan, in his pre-Blackie Connors days), a talented but wayward hurler in his final year of secondary school.
Set in rural Cork at a time when Cork All-Ireland hurling title wins weren’t rare events, Kelly has to cope with the pressure heaped upon him by his mother, his father and his uncompromising GAA coach.
While hurling glory is an ever-present target, Kelly’s hurling manager has within his gift the greatest prize of them all, probably the most sought after prize in recession-hit Ireland – the handy bank job.
He cruelly dangles this treasured role above young Kelly’s head for much of the film. A humorous and evocative portrait of rural life in 1980s Ireland.
The Natural (1984)
A few years after winning an Oscar for directing Ordinary People, Robert Redford was back in front of the camera for this feel-good baseball drama. Redford plays Roy Hobbs, a talented pitcher, whose early career was stalled when, for no apparent reason he was shot by a young woman.
Years later, Hobbs returns as a rookie for the New York Knights. With the bat, cut from a lightning struck tree, still in his possession from days before, our hero has a chance to finally fulfill his own dream.
There are, of course, obstacles in Hobbs’ way, not least from ‘The Judge’ who would like to see the Knights lose.
Directed by Barry Levinson, who would later go on to helm Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man, The Natural, despite its over sentimentality, is still an engaging watch right to the last out of the last inning.
A fine supporting cast features Robert Duvall, Glenn Close and Barbara Hershey.
The little horse that could. Seabiscuit, which leans on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, chronicles the true travails of Seabiscuit, who plodded through a middling career before trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard tapped into the quirky colt’s underlying brilliance.
Set in the middle of the Great Depression, this movie tugs at the heart strings as Seabiscuit and Pollard keep defying the odds.
There’s lots of cleverly used CGI which makes the races themselves thrillingly visceral, not least when Seabiscuit goes head to head with War Admiral in a memorable scene that plays out like a boxing match.
Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper star.
The Fighter (2010)
It’s hard not to sit through The Fighter and then jump straight on to YouTube to rewatch that incredible Ward-Gatti trilogy that took place over the course of a year in 2002-2003, but this movie doesn’t go there.
Instead we focus on Micky Ward (Mark Walhlberg) in the years beforehand, as he tries to break away from the negative influence of his drug-addicted half-brother Dickey Eklund (Christian Bale) and their overbearing mother.
The drama is brilliantly acted and perfectly paced while the fight scenes are terrific; you can feel every body blow Wahlberg sucks up in the climactic battle with Shea Neary for the WBU light welterweight title in London.
The Fighter manages to feel both earthily real and soaringly uplifting – fitting for a fighter of such enormous heart as Ward.
The Damned United (2009)
The Damned Utd is an unusual book. Author David Peace attempts to crawl into Brian Clough’s head and articulate his inner thoughts throughout the doomed 44-day reign at Leeds United.
It was said to be a book of fiction based on fact. John Giles called it “rubbish” and threatened to sue for libel.
The movie, adapted from the book by Peter Morgan, is a more conventional biopic, with the great chameleon Michael Sheen producing a fine turn as Clough.
Colm Meaney (Don Revie), Stephen Graham (Billy Bremner) and Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor) are all great and it makes a decent fist of recreating the match action. An entertaining watch.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Mixing moments of comedy and no little violence, The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynolds, an actor who never quite fulfilled his promise.
That said, he’s not bad in this as the disgraced former quarterback Paul Crewe who is doing time in prison after a drunken spree got out of control.
While incarcerated, the sadistic warden enlists Crewe to put together a team of inmates that will take on the semi-professional guards. Let’s say that the latter are expected to easily overcome the opposition, but in time Crewe gets his own outfit in shape, often with hilarious results.
The game itself is shot with much finesse by director Robert Aldrich (Dirty Dozen & The Flight Of The Phoenix), making good use of the split screen.
It’s no surprise as to who you’ll be cheering for, while our hero has a difficult decision to make.
A remake did follow in 2005, with Adam Sandler starring and Burt Reynolds back in a cameo role.
Raging Bull (1980)
“Was I ever that young?” That’s a question Robert De Niro might ask himself when he rewatches his towering portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
De Niro may have resembled Grandpa Simpson on PCP in one particularly cringe-inducing fight scene in The Irishman recently, but there was a time when he could throw a punch, and Scorsese could capture him looking magnificent doing it.
Films in the genre often veer into hagiography. Not this one. Boxing doesn’t come out of this well. LaMotta doesn’t come out of this well, even if the film skips over his most egregious transgressions.
As with most well-made sports films – and they’re few and far between – Raging Bull isn’t really about sport at all. Scorsese delves into the darker elements of the human condition and melds them together in a monochrome masterpiece.
Happy Gilmour (1996)
My colleagues have all been very high-minded in their choices and that is to be commended. But we all need a laugh or two and this is one of the few acceptable Adam Sandler films in the canon (Uncut Gems is a cracker, but watch with caution in these stressful times).
It’s a story as old as time. Failed ice hockey player discovers he has a talent for hitting a golf ball Justin-Thomas-distances and joins the stuffy PGA Tour in an attempt to save his grandmother’s house after she gets into trouble with the taxman.
The foul-mouthed Happy, with his homeless caddie, unconventional technique and casual dress soon runs foul of Shooter McGavin – the tour’s top player, who seems to have been based on Paul Azinger, but more likeable.
With the help of love interest Virginia Venit – the tour’s PR person – and one-handed mentor Chubbs Peterson (RIP) Happy learns to putt, learns to control his anger and learns a little about life along the way. He also gets beaten up by Bob Barker in one of the film’s many memorable slapstick scenes.
Does he manage to save his granny’s house? Watch to find out, but safe to say the ending is a little happier than Uncut Gems (shudder).
Talladega NIghts (2006)
It’s another deep and meaningful film on life and the human condition. Nah, it’s one of those gazillion interchangeable and eminently quotable movies that Will Ferrell made in the noughties. Think Anchorman with crash helmets or Blades of Glory in circles.
Ricky Bobby is the king of Nascar. Not blessed in the intellect department, he can make a car go faster than anyone else in circles for an interminable period of time.
Until, that is, he gets spooked by French Formula One superstar Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), crashes his car and loses his nerve to the point where he thinks he is paralysed, leading to a painful incident with a knife, a la Mr Benson in Father Ted.
He loses his job, his trophy wife (to former team-mate and best friend John C Reilly) and takes his sons Walker and Texas Ranger to live with his mother.
He gets his life back on track and returns to the track, wins the Winter Olympics Gold Medal and reassembles the News Team.
Tin Cup (1996)
One day we may get a golf film where the villain of the piece goes for the green while the hero decides to prudently lay up but this one isn’t it.
Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner) and his story has a touch of the John Daly about it. Hard-living golf pro turns up at a major championship and shocks the world.
Our hero’s preparation isn’t exactly Padraig Harrington-like in its thoroughness. He improbably qualified for the US Open by playing his second qualifying round with just a 7-iron, his exasperated caddie having grown so alienated by his golfer’s cavalier attitude that he snapped every club in the bag with his knee.
Villain of the piece is David Simms (Don Johnson), Roy’s nemesis and love-rival for budding sports psychologist Dr Molly Griswold (Rene Russo).
At the risk of giving away too much, Simms’ commitment to laying up (which we are naturally encouraged to take as a signifier for his all-round cowardice and lack of moral fibre) is so complete that he opts to do so on the 72nd hole while trailing the championship by a stroke (to Peter Jacobsen, since you asked). I mean, come on man!
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
Can you remember the five Ds of dodgeball? If not it’s time for a refresher.
Vince Vaughan plays the owner of a rundown gym, Average Joe’s, which is on the brink of going bust.
Needing $50,000 to stay afloat, and with Ben Stiller’s muscle-bound Globo Gym ready to pounce on their vulnerable neighbours, Vaughan enlists the help of his ragtag clientele and – like many of us – heads for Las Vegas in search of a get-rich-quick scheme.
Unlike many of us, he targets a dodgeball tournament.
Coached by dodgeball great Patches O’Houlihan, whose training methods are believed to mimicked in Kerry GAA circles, can Vaughan and his motley crew overcome the weirdest of opponents – and those evil chaps from Globo Gym – to claim the $50,000 prize? There’s only one way to find out.
Escape to Victory (1981)
Escape to Victory is a film that shouldn’t work.
Part World War II POW escape caper, part soccer film, with a cast of sportsmen who have never acted before, it somehow all coalesces into the perfect Saturday afternoon matinee movie.
It helps that Michael Caine is there as the leading man and he’s at his cockney scenery-chewing best, while there’s even a respectable performance from Sylvester Stallone as the most unlikely goalkeeper you’ve ever seen.
The likes of Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles and former Republic of Ireland international Kevin O’Callaghan help to lend some authenticity to the well shot match scenes and director John Huston somehow manages to pull all those disparate parts together.
Oh and if the La Marseillaise scene towards the end of the film doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you may be dead inside.
Rocky IV (1985)
I’m not saying that Rocky IV is single handily responsible for the end of the Cold War, but it’s no coincidence that the Berlin Wall fell a mere six years after its release.
There has never been a more 80s film than Rocky IV. We start off with the big bad Russian Ivan Drago coming to America to dominate and destroy the All-American superstar, and Rocky’s best friend, Apollo Creed.
From there on out we’re on a revenge journey with Rocky who agrees to an unsanctioned fight against Drago in Moscow on Christmas Day.
And how better to prepare for that fight than a load of montages? Rocky chops down trees in depths of the Russian winter, Drago gets injected with steroids. Rocky runs up a mountain, Drago punches a computer to death.
It’s wonderful nonsense and Rocky’s post-fight speech at the end after bringing a hostile Russian crowd onside is the perfect cheesy cherry on top of it all. That is three entries in our list for Sly.
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