Sunday 23 July 2017

Silver screen stunners that are almost as good as the real thing

Time on your hands? Eamonn Sweeney points the way to a sports fan's DVD heaven

On the face of it Invictus, released here in a couple of weeks, should be a cracking film. It is directed by Clint Eastwood who, in his old age, has become the premier director of good old-fashioned entertaining, yet thoughtful, Hollywood movies. It stars Morgan Freeman, not a man who makes too many mistakes when picking his roles, and Matt Damon, who makes even fewer. Yet I retain a nagging suspicion that Invictus might be a rare misfire for this titanic trio.

You see, Invictus is about Nelson Mandela and South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup victory (Damon plays Springbok captain Francois Pienaar). Which means that it's, gulp, a sports movie. And the poor old sports movie has a chequered reputation.

There is, for example, the fact that until The Damned United came out last year there had never been a film about the world's most popular sport which didn't make you want to watch it through your fingers. Remember Goal? Mean Machine? Sylvester Stallone winning the second world war, or something like that, by saving a penalty in Escape To Victory? My commiserations.

Because I remember them too, just like I remember the aforementioned Stallone fighting the Cold War, the war against aging and the war against intelligence in the interminable series of Rocky movies, like I remember Steve McQueen in Le Mans, one long home movie of cars rumbling past the camera, David Essex on his motorbike in Silver Dream Racer and Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, a film so keen to share its homespun wisdom it made you feel like you were playing 18 holes with Paulo Coelho.

Sports movies have the great disadvantage of trying to represent something the reality of which can't be bettered by fiction. What screenwriter could come up with something as exciting as the final two minutes of the 1999 Champions League final, create a character as charismatic as Usain Bolt or script a showdown as dramatic as Ali's victory over Foreman in Kinshasa?

The sports movie director is faced with the brutal fact that whatever he thinks of, real life got there first. When you're making films about alien invasions on the other hand, you don't have to compete with the audience's memories of previous matches between Earth and the Planet Zog. Similarly, we can become engrossed by war movies because hardly any of us know what an actual war looks like. We do know what games of football, boxing matches and car races look like.

There's also the problem that in real life we become engrossed in big sporting events precisely because of their reality and our knowledge that there is something tangible at stake. It's more difficult in the heightened world of cinema to make viewers believe that the result of a game is inherently dramatic in the way, for example, that Jason Bourne's persistent escapes from death are.

That's why boxing is the sport which best serves cinema. One look at two professional fighters squaring up to each other in a ring and you immediately remember that this is a matter of life and death, that there's no need to ramp up the drama implicit in the contest.

Having said all this, there are some genuinely great sports movies. Here's my own personal selection of the top ten. Given that you probably won't be going out much as the freeze continues, they're well worth checking out once you've finished watching that skiing DVD for tips on how to get to work. I've excluded documentaries because they have the advantage of using real footage of real events and thus have an unfair edge over their fictional counterparts. You can take it as read that were documentaries in, the likes of Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings and Once In A Lifetime would be leading the way. Though, good and all as they are, they're not better than my first choice.

This Sporting Life (1963)

David Storey was a fantastic writer, good enough to write a novel, Saville, which won the Booker Prize, and a play, Home, which ran for a couple of years on Broadway. He was also a good enough rugby league player to play professionally for Leeds. This exceptionally rare combination of talents made him the ideal candidate to write a very good sports novel.

The movie made of this very good book is, however, touched by genius and stands head and shoulders above any other sporting film ever made.

The story of rugby league star Frank Machin is ruthless in sketching out the physical demands of his calling, of the cynicism which is necessary to succeed, of the master and servant relationship between owner and players, of the fickle nature of fans and the attentions of hangers-on and sycophants. Director Lindsay Anderson had cut his teeth making documentaries about English working-class life and this grounding gives This Sporting Life a rare authenticity.

But what lifts the film into the stratosphere is nothing less than the greatest film performance ever given by an Irish actor.

Perhaps, as the man got older, we all got a bit too used to the idea of Richard Harris as chat show staple and tedious hellraiser and forgot why people had paid attention to him in the first place. Because as Machin, brutal, confused, yearning and oddly innocent, Harris makes you forget that you're watching the creation of a writer and director and makes Machin's struggles seem as important as the travails of your own family. It would be nice to think that Harris was channelling his beloved Limerick rugby as he did so. If Paul O'Connell was an actor, this is what he'd be like.

Ali (2001)

Muhammad Ali, the greatest sportsman of all time, was such a larger-than-life creation that it was an impossible task to make a film which would do justice to the complexity and chutzpah of the man. Yet Michael Mann came as close as humanly possible when making this magnificent movie.

Beginning with one of the decade's great opening scenes, as shots of Ali in training are intercut with some of Sam Cooke performing Bring It On Home To Me. It's a masterly piece of work which puts Ali into a specific cultural context, reminds us that in his own way the fighter was a great black artist like Cooke and brings to mind the dancer's grace with which Ali moved around the ring.

Ali was sorely under-rated at the time of release with some complaints that Will Smith was the wrong choice for the role. In fact, Smith is terrific, not least because Ali was a far cry from the tough guy boxing stereotype and could be seen as a progenitor of the type of rap records with which the actor made his name. A triumph for Mann whose first film, The Jericho Mile, about a convict trying to run an Olympic qualifying time while still in jail, is a smaller masterpiece, but a masterpiece nevertheless.

Seabiscuit (2003)

A great panoramic film which perfectly captures the co-operative nature of horse racing and the way sport touches the lives of spectators. Seabiscuit had the advantage of being based on the marvellous book by Laura Hillenbrand, which was written with such narrative sweep and excitement you could almost see a film projected before you as you read.

The average sports fan over here had never heard of Seabiscuit's famous match with War Admiral before the film came out but, it persuaded you that this was one of the great contests of the century. Director Gary Ross was pretty much unknown but he was blessed with terrific performances from Chris Cooper as the withdrawn and mystical trainer Tom Smith, Jeff Bridges as the horse's millionaire owner and, above all, William H Macy, that doyen of character actors, as Tick Tock McLaughlin, the epitome of OTT sports commentators the world over. You'd need a heart of stone not to have a happy tear in your eye by the final scene.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

A movie which touches on two of the great themes of sport: how it can offer a way out of poverty to people who in other respects look like no-hopers and how those who toil at the lower levels still dream of hitting the big time.

Hilary Swank played Maggie Fitzgerald, the wannabe boxer whose hunger and neediness were so obvious that at times you wanted to look away from the screen. Director Clint Eastwood played Frankie Dunn who, after a lifetime of training second-raters, suddenly found himself in charge of a real but erratic talent.

Based on short stories by FX Toole, a former cutman, Million Dollar Baby is a heartbreaking story which manages the difficult task of suggesting that Maggie Fitzgerald, and all the Maggie Fitzgeralds of this world, deserve the chance of changing their life's fortunes in the boxing ring.

Raging Bull (1980)

There are people who think that Goodfellas shows the Mafia life as a glamorous one when anything more than a cursory examination of the plot shows that it depicts a kind of living Hell. And there are those who regard Raging Bull as being a tribute to the world of boxing when it's all about the spiritual degradation of a brutal man made even more brutal by the horrible nature of the trade he plies and the world it inhabits.

Those sequences when La Motta fights in close-up to the strains of Mascagni's intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana are the ancestors of a million sports show montages. But they were breathtakingly original when Martin Scorsese came up with them. Robert De Niro, as middleweight champion Jake La Motta, was never better. It says something about the fish-out-of-water nature of some great sportsmen in real life, that you feel far worse for him when he tries to perform on stage than when he's getting clobbered by Sugar Ray Robinson.

Blood and Sand (1941)

The greatest of all sporting road to ruin movies as Juan Gallardo, played by Tyrone Power, rises to the top of the bullfighting game before losing everything, including his life, when he is unable to cope with the fame and riches which come his way. A visually stunning film which captures the brutality, the pageantry and the terrible beauty of the corrida, directed by the great Rouben Mamoulian, with a transcendentally sexy Rita Hayworth as Dona Sol, the temptress who is Gallardo's downfall and who these days would sell her story to the tabloids. George Best would have understood this one.

Personal Best (1982)

A study of the rivalries and relationships between female athletes trying to make the US Olympic team directed by Robert Towne, who also made the fantastic Without Limits about American runner Steve Prefontaine, PB rings incredibly true because Towne not only researched extensively but cast many real athletes in the film. The two main characters are played by Olympic hurdler Patrice Donnelly and Mariel Hemingway, whose grandfather Ernest was no mean sportsman himself. The best film ever about women in sport.

A League of Their Own (1992)

The second best film ever about women in sport.

The true story -- it's based on an all-women baseball league set up to provide entertainment for fans when male players were away fighting in the second world war -- was a godsend to a film-maker and Penny Marshall made a brilliant job of it. So good a job that not only is Geena Davis, as the team's star player, excellent but this is a film in which Madonna, Tom Hanks and Rosie O'Donnell all appear without making you want to jump off a cliff.

Talladega Nights (2006)

Sometimes we take sport too seriously. There's no better antidote to that than Adam McKay's brilliant comedy set in the world of American motor sport's NASCAR series. The scene where Will Ferrell as the title character and Sasha Baron Cohen, as his gay French nemesis, race in slow motion to the tune of Pat Benatar's We Belong is guaranteed to induce irresistible laughter in anyone who's watched one too many epic Sky Sports build-ups.

The scenes where Ferrell's father, played by the man who used to be the Midnight Caller on telly, try to help him regain his form are a note-perfect piss take of every overwrought motivational scene in sports cinema. The anti-Any Given Sunday.

The Lusty Men (1952)

Directed by the legendary Nicholas Ray three years before he made James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, once seen this will haunt you for the rest of your life. Robert Mitchum as Jeff McCloud, a has-been rodeo rider tramping from town to town as his career nears the end, could be a professional footballer eking out the last dregs of his talent at one non league club after another. The only difference is that the footballer's failing powers don't put his life at risk.

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