Tell me what's more depressing: the fact that Hollywood keeps churning out formulaic sports movies, or the fact that I keep walking out of the theater thinking, "You know, that really wasn't bad?"
Much like downtrodden Knicks fans talking themselves into Isiah and Marbury this season, maybe Hollywood has worn me down. When you have no hope, you tend to be much more forgiving, right? These days, sports movies shun originality for a predictable, "creative" package that includes the ubiquitous underdog formula, a star to stick on the the movie poster, and some half-assed combination of plots that we've already seen five times. And we know this. It's almost like a game of Mad Libs. Buy a bunch of index cards, write one-word sports, plots, scenarios and famous stars on them, stick all the cards in a jar, shake the jar up, pull out four of them and -- voila! -- you have a hit sports movie.
For instance, the producers of "Gridiron Gang" pulled out these four cards: FOOTBALL + JUVIE + INNER-CITY + THE ROCK.
What happened? It became the No. 1 movie in America last weekend. Of course it did. As long as we keep devouring this predictable crap, they'll keep churning it out. And if you're wondering what spurred the dramatic increase in sports movies lately -- "Coach Carter," "Invincible," "The Longest Yard," "Glory Road," "The Greatest Game Ever Played," "Rebound," "Talladega Nights," "Two For the Money," "Cinderella Man" and "Bad News Bears" were released in the past 18 months alone -- the answer's actually pretty easy: Most of those movies made money.
• Summer '06 reviews
• Two for the Money
• Wedding Crashers/Bad News Bears
• Cinderella Man
• Karate Kid
• Blue Chips
• The Longest Yard
• The Bad News Bears (old)
• Varsity Blues
• He Got Game
• Remember the Titans
So will "Gridiron Gang," the latest sports movie to ride the whole "based on a true story" tag. That's Hollywood's way of saying, "the real story was much less interesting, we spruced it up for you." Um, shouldn't we start figuring out where to draw the line on this one? At the end of "Invincible," Mark Wahlberg's character blocks a punt for the Eagles and runs it back for a touchdown, and I remember thinking at the time, "Well, they went too far, nobody in their right mind will ever believe that happened." Then I was discussing it with my father last week, who enjoyed the movie and sounded shocked when I mentioned the rigged ending.
"Really?" he asked. "That didn't happen? I mean, they said it was based on a true story."
Yeah, exactly. BASED on a true story. For instance, let's say somebody made a movie about an ESPN.com sports columnist who repeatedly criticizes Doc Rivers' coaching skills, gets asked to take over the Celtics after Rivers is fired, immediately narrows down their swollen rotation to nine guys and leads them to the Finals before Bennett Salvatore calls a phantom charge on Paul Pierce in Game 7 to cost them the title ... and instead of protesting the game, he fights Bennett to the death and wins. The end. Could you say that was based on a true story? After all, the first part happened, right? I do write a column for ESPN.com and I did criticize Doc Rivers. See what I mean?
FYI: We just released the paperback version of my Red Sox book, "Now I Can Die In Peace," which includes a 20-page afterword (with footnotes) that I made just long enough that you can't read it in a bookstore without starting to feel uncomfortable because you've been standing for so long. Also, I handed in the afterword in June, about six weeks before Boston's season fell apart, making it the first afterword that was already dated before the book was released. So that's always fun. (You'll especially love my glowing words about Josh Beckett. Shoot me.)
Just for kicks, we even included a photo of me and my buddy J-Bug holding the 2004 World Series trophy (with matching deer-in-the-headlights looks, no less). And there's a shocking story about the time I punched out Johnny Pesky at the Cask and Flagon. All right, I made that last one up. But you can find the paperback in any bookstore, or you can order it on Amazon.com for a measly 10 bucks. So get the thing already. Come on. I don't ask for much.
So how much of "Gridiron Gang" was rigged? I don't know ... and to be honest, I didn't have the heart to Google it. The movie is "based on the story" of a California juvie center where nobody got along and the kids had a 75 percent chance of landing in prison some day, so one of the counselors decided football could bring them together and teach them discipline and stuff. I'm not doubting that this happened -- in the closing credits, they even show the real coach and some of his players -- just that it happened as easily as it does in this movie, where they land $10,000 worth of uniforms and a full schedule of games in about five minutes. Then again, can you nitpick with a movie starring the Rock and Xzibit? Probably not.
The plot unfolds pretty smoothly. You're not going to believe this, but it's a little rocky with the team at first, and the kids don't really get along, and the Rock is a little hard on them, but then things turn and they start coming together, because, after all, sports can solve everything. Since it's a 21st century football movie, every football scene is filmed waaaaaaaaaaay too close (even the practice scenes), every tackle involves two guys viciously colliding in mid-air, every pitch is good for 15-20 yards because cornerbacks are nowhere to be seen, every kickoff and punt can be run back for a touchdown, and opponents refuse to go into the prevent when they're leading in the final minute with 80 yards of the field to cover.
I know, I know ... it sounds like I didn't enjoy it. But I kinda did -- it kept my interest for two hours. And why? I'm a sucker for inner-city TV shows and movies going back to my "White Shadow" days; if you can give me a subplot where two players from rival gangs have to learn to get along, even better. I also love the Rock going back to his WWE stint, when everyone knew he was headed for bigger and better things ... you know, like half-decent movies that would make tons of money. And sure, it's hard to take him seriously as an actor. Every time he entered a room, I kept expecting him to take a dramatic pause, look up to the sky and scream, "Finally the Rock HAS COME BACK TO JUVIE!" Every time he called a play from the sidelines, I kept expecting him to bark out, "25 Sweep right, on two, if you smellllll-l-l-l-l-l-l ... what the Rock ... ISSSSS cooking!" Gradually I realized that he's just an actor now ... as opposed to his wrestling days, when he was an actor.
But if you don't think Rock (excuse me, THE Rock) can go to that special place, well, you're kidding yourself. In one emotional scene, the Rock tries to figure out why his star player, Willie Weathers, is reverting back to his old, dastardly inner-city ways. They're sitting in Willie's cell, hashing it out, and Willie starts breaking, and we come to find out that Willie can't forgive his dad for being such a bad father. Well, the Rock's character knows what that's like -- he can't forgive his father, either. Now the Rock's face is twitching, tears are streaming down his cheek. That leads to this moment:
- Willie: "When'd you finally forgive him?"
The Rock (after about 10-12 seconds of twitching, blinking and lip-biting): "I just did."
Powerful stuff. Hell, I knew it was coming, I even knew "I just did" was coming ... and it still got me. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater. Granted, it was an 11:30 a.m. matinee at the Arclight, and it was just me and two other guys, but still.
(Quick note on the Rock: Ever since the glory days of Stallone, Seagal, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger and even Swayze, we've been desperately searching for action heroes who could remain likable, believable, indestructable and unintentionally funny, preferably all at the same time. I'm not saying the Rock has filled that void -- not by any stretch -- but he's at least morphed into someone who can open a movie, make it seem slightly more important and be ridiculed 4-5 times in 90 minutes, even as you're thoroughly enjoying him. Better than nothing, I guess.)
I won't ruin the ending, which features an inevitable rematch between the Rock's team and a preppie team of evil white kids that destroyed them in their first game. But I did find the symbolism interesting. When "Rocky" launched the lovable underdog boom in '76, we rallied around a mildly talented white boxer who nearly toppled an invincible black champion. Two years later in "Rocky II," the white guy finally knocked out the black guy -- I still remember everyone in my theater STANDING AND CHEERING at the end -- quickly followed by Rocky facing an even more menacing black opponent in "Rocky III," a sneering, mohawked wrecking machine who hit on Rocky's wife ("Hey woman hey woman!"), knocked him out and inadvertently caused Mickey's death. That's just the way it worked in the '70s and '80s, cresting with "Hoosiers," when a team of underdog white kids rallied to beat a team of taller, more talented black kids. There was an underlying lesson, even if we didn't want to admit it: Black athletes are better, but white athletes can beat them if they try hard enough.
Now things have flipped: we don't need the likes of Rocky Balboa, Danny LaRusso, Crash Davis, Lickety Split, Jimmy Chitwood, Henry Steele, Reg Dunlop, Roy Hobbs, Scott Howard, Paul Crewe and Jonathan E. anymore. Inner-city kids, prisoners and juvie kids have become the heroes, blacks are just as likely to play lead roles as whites, and characters become decidedly unsympathetic if they attend a school with enough money to afford uniforms with names on the back. Coaches have emerged as the most important characters, not because they're the most interesting, but because it's the role most likely to attract a major star (and there really aren't any major stars under 40 anymore). If you can find a setting that can be accentuated by the right hip-hop soundtrack, all the better.
Hey, I'd like to tell you that this is progress. I'd like to tell you that most of the classic sports flicks catered to white people to an embarrassing degree, that the current shift of focus was long overdue. I'd even like to tell you that this is a great sign for society as a whole -- 25 years ago, a sports movie with a black star and a mostly black cast probably wouldn't have finished No. 1 in its opening weekend.
But the truth is less stimulating: Hollywood just ran out of sports movie ideas. Switch the color of the cast and it FEELS like a different formula ... even though it isn't. There will always be an underdog player/team that can't get it together, there will always be a coach/manager/team willing to save them, and there will always be an evil/invincible opponent that needs to be toppled. This recipe has been working for three decades now, and it will probably be working three decades from now. One day, I'll stop enjoying it. I just don't know when. There are worse ways to kill two hours.
One more thing ...
I found it fascinating that, in the same month that "Gridiron Gang" became the No. 1 movie, HBO ignored perpetually crummy ratings and renewed "The Wire" for a fifth and final season. After plowing through the first 37 episodes of "The Wire" in three weeks this summer, I agree with others who argue that it's the most important television show of all-time, surpassing even "The Sopranos" because of its ambition and social relevance. The "Sopranos" worked because the acting and writing was so exceptional, we found ourselves identifying with unlikable characters who were basically unredeemable (save for Tony's wife, his children and his therapist). We excused every horrible action because we grew to like these characters personally over the years. In real life, we probably wouldn't like any of them, and we would definitely be afraid of them. It's fantasy disguised as reality: Lose yourself in the show for an hour, digest it when it's over and move on to something else.
Well, there's nowhere to hide in "The Wire." The characters are stuck in Baltimore, a washed-up city ravaged by drugs, poverty and political corruption. Our closest thing to heroes are renegade detective Jimmy McNulty (a likable, hard-drinking iconoclast who disappears for much of Season 2 and becomes completely irrelevant in Season 4) and a gun-wielding nomad named Omar (a scarfaced Robin Hood, only if Robin Hood was gay and stole from drug dealers). We spend three full seasons watching Baltimore police break the city's biggest drug syndicate ... only to watch an angrier, more ruthless group of rival dealers immediately pop up in its place. The current season centers around four poor teenagers (all of them threatening to succumb to the drug lifestyle) and Baltimore's incompetent school system (which can't even begin to hope to save them), with the show elucidating in painstaking detail why these kids can't be salvaged: They have no role models and no chance to escape, and things will never change because the lead politicians and major police heads only care about themselves. There's no overall plan to save the city, no passionate leader on the horizon, nothing. All of it would take too much effort. Like a dead fish, Baltimore rots from the head down.
It's an exceptional show, and I'm not even sure "exceptional" is a strong enough word. Of course, barely anyone watches it. HBO deliberated over its renewal all summer until the gushing feedback for Season 4 left them no choice. Late to the party, I spent the past few weeks devouring the show, then the next week wondering what took everyone else so long to jump on the bandwagon, and more importantly, what took ME so long to jump on the bandwagon. Two weeks ago in this space, I explained how I'm one of those people who doesn't like when other people tell me, "YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW!" If anything, that makes me not want to watch it. I like to stumble across these things organically.
Now I'm wondering if I avoided "The Wire" because its central themes -- drugs, corruption, urban decay -- were realities that I simply wanted to ignore. Instead of being haunted by a show like this, it was easier and safer to skip it entirely. Most people feel this way, I'm guessing; it's the only conceivable reason why five times as many people would watch "The Sopranos" over a show that's better in every way. See, when most Americans dabble in inner-city TV shows or movies for our "taste" of street life, we're hoping for the Hollywood version. We don't want despair and decay, we want hope and triumph. We don't want the zero sum game of drug dealers killing each other, we want the Rock coaching juvie kids and turning their lives around in two hours. We want them to win the big football game, we want the movie to end, and we don't want to think about these people ever again.
That's the real reason why "Gridiron Gang" became the No. 1 movie last weekend, and that's the real reason why "The Wire" was barely renewed for a fifth season. Upon further review, maybe the problem isn't Hollywood after all.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.