By BRIAN FITZSIMMONS
Inspired by a true story, "When the Game Stands Tall" tells the remarkable journey of legendary football coach Bob Ladouceur, who led De La Salle High School (Calif.) to a 151-game winning streak that shattered all records for any American sport.
There's always something charming about a high school football tale. In this case, Ladouceur's take on life lessons (there's a lot of inspirational lines, delivered flawlessly by Jim Caviezel) and the team's unorthodox motivational tactics provide "Stands Tall" with a playbook's worth of rah-rah, uplifting moments.
But the adaption of the 2003 book by Neil Hayes, which is being released nationwide on Aug. 22, is also painfully heavy at times. Much of the film's drama centers around the shooting death of one of De La Salle's best players, Terrence Kelly, who was murdered the night before he was to leave on scholarship for the University of Oregon, and a massive heart attack Ladouceur suffered.
For much of the first half, this movie isn't about pigskin; it's a heart-wrenching account about the unfair things in life and how family or friends can shape perspective.
Then, midway through, football and overcoming obstacles suddenly become the driving forces, and successfully weave together in celebration of Ladouceur, who amassed 399 career wins before stepping down in 2012. One of the most touching scenes shows many players solemnly dedicating their personal goals to another person on the team, writing 'commitment cards.'
Ladouceur said it was never just about winning; his success throughout his career was simply a byproduct of doing things the right way. Gentle and soft-spoken (unlike a typical football coach), Caviezel was cast perfectly because of that creed.
It's difficult to pinpoint where this ranks among the all-time best football movies.
It possesses the perfect balance of hard reality and sport, like "Remember the Titans." It triggers compassion the way "The Blind Side" does. It rallies around a quirky coach, much like "We Are Marshall." It's also shot exceptionally well, a la "Friday Night Lights." Even the David vs. Goliath scene against the big, bad Long Beach Poly squad – ranked No. 1 in the United States at the time – offered some elements of the beloved "Rudy."
For all those reasons, "Stands Tall" lives up to its name.