Originally created 08/24/06

'Invincible' is real charmer, thanks to good story, actors



It's a great story, and it has the added benefit of being (mostly) true.

In 1976, at the start of his first year as the Philadelphia Eagles' head coach, Dick Vermeil issued an open call to anyone who wanted to try out for the team. Having lost the last game of the previous dismal season, 31-0, to the Cincinnati Bengals in a dreary, snowy Veterans Stadium, they had nothing left to lose, right?

Hundreds showed up. One guy made it: Vince Papale, a lifelong Eagles fan who happened to be at a crossroads at age 30, but who also happened to possess explosive athletic abilities and even greater heart.

The appropriately titled Invincible is his story - or rather, it's "inspired by" his story. (The filmmakers took a few liberties, but they're acceptable.) Like its predecessors The Rookie and Miracle, it's remarkably un-Disneyfied for a Disney movie.

Cinematographer Ericson Core (The Fast and the Furious), who directs for the first time and also shot the film, and screenwriter Brad Gann take a stripped-down look at Mr. Papale's unlikely pro football career, which is surprising given the feel-good subject matter, yet fitting for the setting.

In gritty tones and vivid details, Mr. Core depicts the economic hardships Mr. Papale and his friends endured in working-class South Philly in the 1970s. In Mark Wahlberg, himself a product of a poor upbringing in South Boston, Mr. Core has the ideal actor. His stoicism, physicality and tough-guy looks make him totally believable as Mr. Papale, and make it easy to root for him as the underdog.

Mr. Papale had always been the star of the pickup games he played with his buddies in a dilapidated yard. A substitute teacher and part-time bartender, Mr. Papale probably didn't even realize what he was capable of - he just went out there and did what he knew how to do.

Around the time his teaching gig is drying up and his wife coldly leaves him, taking with her all the belongings in their apartment, Mr. Vermeil puts out his call. Greg Kinnear is an eerily good fit to play the young coach from the University of California Los Angeles, all blond and tanned and full of fresh spark, which makes him a natural target of ridicule for the city's hardened sports fans and writers.

At the urging of his friends, Mr. Papale goes for it. As he makes it through cuts, he emerges as an inspiration for his friends and neighbors, something he realizes while driving and stopping for a boy who ran out to retrieve a ball. The kid is wearing a makeshift No. 83 jersey - Mr. Papale's number - and in a nice touch, the actor is Mr. Papale's real-life son.

Vince is one of them. His success keeps them going during their own failure, but he also runs into some resistance from jealous friends and even from his father (Kevin Conway),. These scenes are among the film's most poignant without trying hard to be.

'INVINCIBLE'

STUDIO: Walt Disney Pictures

MPAA RATING: PG for sports action and some mild language

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

THE VERDICT: *** out of ****