Underdog story makes a winning 'Game'

Category: The Game of Their Lives Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: April 22, 2005 | Publication: Boston Globe | Author: Wesley Morris
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It's easy to see how indifferent this country is toward soccer when you look at the movies we have -- or haven't -- made about it. The ones that do exist tend to be rambunctious kiddie flicks front-loaded with funnymen and crotch kicks. It says everything about American movies' interest in the game when ''Fever Pitch," Nick Hornby's soccer-fan memoir, is made over as the story of a stark-raving Red Sox nut.

The only major depiction that comes to mind is the 13-year-old Rodney Dangerfield-Jackee Harry vehicle ''Ladybugs," although this summer there is ''Kicking and Screaming," but that just looks like coach Will Ferrell out-bratting a bunch of 10-year-old boys.

In the meantime, ''The Game of Their Lives," a perfectly reverent feel-good portrait, is sneaking into the Fresh Pond multiplex today. The film retells the 55-year-old story of how the American men's soccer team scored a major upset against England in the first round of the World Cup. The film does so with as little fuss as possible without being completely indolent. But given that it's merely another sports-triumph flick (Team USA was a 500-to-1 underdog), the story could pretty much tell itself.

The filmmakers are none other than director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, who made ''Hoosiers," that classic high school basketball odds-beater, and the college football weepie ''Rudy," an ESPN classic. Here they're working with considerably lower dramatic stakes.

A group of first-generation Italian-Americans from St. Louis is recruited to play with a band of East Coast preppies. The culture clashing goes on for a few scenes but it doesn't take long for everybody to lay off the ethnic slurs and play as a team. The guys even embrace the Haitian-born New Yorker Joe Gatjeans (Jimmy Jean-Louis) and his voodoo.

The cast is hard-working. ''Phantom of the Opera" star Gerard Butler plays goalie Frank Borghi, and he's much more appealing now that you can see his entire face. Wes Bentley, the pot dealer in ''American Beauty," resurfaces as team captain Walter Bahr. The grunge singer-turned-Mr. Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale, plays the cocky English star Stanley Mortensen, who seems to have been the David Beckham of his day.

The big news, aside from the appearance of ''Home Improvement" son Zachery Ty Bryan, is the teaming up of the Mandylor brothers, Costas of Skinemax fame and Louis, star of the martial-art flicks that turn up on Cinemax's Action Max channel. They play hotheaded Charley ''Gloves" Columbo and softhearted Gino Pariani, respectively.

The 1950 World Cup was the first after World War II, and the US team was heading down to Brazil as a public relations move and an investment in the American future of soccer. They weren't supposed to beat anybody, let alone the country that invented the sport. (The team eventually lost to Chile.)

It's that objective that gives ''The Game of Their Lives" its wistfulness. The movie opens in the stands at a D.C. United match, where the indelibly named Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart), the reporter who covered the Cup that year, rejoices in how the game's popularity has grown over half a century. Indeed it has! Warming up on the field are Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu.

Stewart narrates the movie and does the commentating during the matches, which are pretty exciting. What the cast members lack in sharpened skill they more than make up for in raw gusto and athletic scrappiness (most of the actors have logged a lot of soccer in their pasts). These guys give a sport that is virtually nameless in the movies a good name in this one.