“When the Game Stands Tall” is a solid if unsurprising and uninspiring melodrama built around high school football, faith-based but “Friday Night Lite.”
It’s the latest of that peculiar sub-genre of sports films, where filmmakers bend over backwards to make a perennial powerhouse football factory look like an underdog. These stories, about a Permian High in Texas (“Friday Night Lights”) or T.C. Williams in Virginia (“Remember the Titans”) look at status as a burden and claim to be about “more than a game,” even as they build toward their by-the-book “Big Game” finale.
“When the Game” varies the formula by being faith-based, about a pious coach (Jim Caviezel) who talks about building character as much as he worries about blocking schemes.
Coach Bob Ladouceur lectures his De La Salle Spartans about love, setting high standards, making “a perfect effort, from the snap to the whistle” on each play. They share “commitment cards,” pledging the extra strength training, the extra practice and high goals they want to achieve as a team.
They stand up at the end of team meetings and talk about their feelings. They hold each other accountable, and hold hands, symbolically, as they enter the field. Something worked, because this Concord, Calif., school won 151 games in a row.
“When the Game Stands Tall” is about the tests they face when that streak is broken.
Coach, quietly obsessed with “The Streak,” has a heart attack. No matter how many times he says, “It’s just a high school football game,” we don’t believe him.
His butter-fingered receiver son (Matthew Daddario) just needs a coach and a dad. Tayshon (Jessie Usher) is the cocky underclassman reluctant to learn leadership from the seniors. And then there’s the all-star running back (Alexander Ludwig) whose ex-jock dad (Clancy Brown, very good) is determined will set the career touchdown record.
Caviezel, Cloaked in Christianity, has been surrounded by success (“The Passion of the Christ”), but you wonder how much of that is a result of his talent. He rarely has a role that requires him to smile and his lines all have a stern authority about them. He’s “the hoarse whisperer.” That isn’t necessarily a wrong-headed way to play this coach, just a boring one.
Michael Chiklis makes more of an impression as a more openly passionate assistant coach who is on the same morality page with his religion-teacher.
Director Thomas Carter, who did the Richmond, Calif., high school hoops drama “Coach Carter,” covers many of the same bases here, but loses the thread and never really gets at the idea, pushed by Ladouceur’s wife, that he’s focused too much on the game and not on his family.
And for all the naked manipulation of the music and the story that builds toward an only slightly unexpected climax, “When the Game Stands Tall” never delivers that lump in the throat that a “Rudy” or “We Are Marshall” or “Friday Night Lights” managed.
“WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL,” starring Jim Caviezel, Alexander Ludwig, Laura Dern, Michael Chiklis and Jessie Usher. Directed by Thomas Carter. Screenplay by Scott Marshall Smith. A TriStar release. Rated PG for thematic material, a scene of violence and brief smoking. Running time: 1:55