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August 23-29, 2006

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Photograph by Ron Phillips
Winging It: Greg Kinnear plays 1970s Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil in a bit of surprising casting in 'Invincible.'

Run Like an Eagle

'Invincible' rushes the line with an inseparable mixture of authenticity and phoniness

By Richard von Busack

IN 1976, when the Philadelphia Eagles were the doormat of the NFL, new coach Dick Vermeil held an open tryout. He recruited a 30-year-old semipro from South Philly named Vince Papale, who was currently keeping himself afloat as a substitute teacher and a bartender. Surviving the hostility of his teammates, Papale eventually did his part to pull the Eagles out of their slump. Cinematographer-turned-director Ericson Core tells the story in Invincible, and it's often authentically punishing—the walloping a football player takes has probably never been so thorough since the Charlton Heston movie Number One. Too bad the authenticity doesn't extend to the love scenes between Mark Wahlberg (as Papale) and Elizabeth Banks, who is far too patrician for the part; these moments are so stiff they might have been written by the ghost of Vince Lombardi.

Yet within its limits, Invincible works. The question is, should you respect the effort or hate its limits? Two of the producers of Invincible, Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, already did two very competent working-class sports films, Miracle and The Rookie. They're trying to equate the malaise-ridden 1970s with hard times today, a genuine enough strategy. As always, Ciardi and Gray load the screen with first-rate supporting actors: Patricia Clarkson in Miracle and Rachel Griffiths and Brian Cox in The Rookie. This makes up for the leads, who play men afflicted with the tunnel-vision a professional athlete must have to survive.

In Invincible, the fine character actor is Greg Kinnear, who plays Vermeil. The unorthodox casting gives us an intelligent, anxious coach instead of the usual roaring blowhard. As in the case of Miracle, Invincible is a real time machine, with acres of polyester and vintage fluffy haircuts. Core does a running gag I adored: Whenever he cuts to a TV, there's crappy reception, a jiggling image and bad color. And this is the first 1970s-set movie I've seen in years that mentions the labor troubles of the day. Papale's rise is set against the Westinghouse strike that's leaving his neighbors poor and frightened.

The locations are realistic. Watching Wahlberg jog through the urban ruins has more authenticity than seeing that stolid, dazed performer trying to mouth his dialogue. But the script's insistence on the healing power of the neighborhood leaves out the ugly side: the drugs, crime and racism. What sours the taste of this classic-styled sports bio is figuring it out later. Battered on the Eagles' training field, Papale goes back and plays a game in the vacant lot with the neighborhood guys. He gets its sacred mud all over him and thus is able to triumph later. "Here in South Philly, our strength is in numbers," says a bartender. And Dad (Kevin Conway) claims that watching one Steve Van Buren pass in the 1940s got him through 30 years in the factory. This is beer-commercial talk, and its phoniness is apparent when we never find out how the strike went. A final title card informs us that today Papale lives in the Jersey suburbs; so much for the power of the working-class neighborhood.

Movie Times Invincible (PG), directed by Ericson Core, written by Brad Gann, photographed by Core and starring Mark Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear, opens Aug. 25.

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