Does anyone not know how Hoosiers ends?
This is not a film that will surprise anyone. The Hollywood sports film formula has been long established: Plucky underdogs endure the slings and arrows of a difficult season to win the "Big Game." It's all too obvious where the film is going.
But in the case of this film, the journey is so much more than the destination. It's not just a story about winning, but about second chances and redemption – for the team, for its coach (Gene Hackman), his love interest (Barbara Hershey) and even the father of one of the players (Dennis Hopper).
Coach Norman Dale moves to the small town of Hickory, Indiana and takes over one of the state's smallest high school teams. But can a big city guy come to this "hick town" with his gruff style and win over not only a group of players, but also a community?
The easy plot summary has to do with the basketball itself. But as Hackman says at the start of the documentary on the second disc, "I guess it's about basketball, but it's really about people." This is not a film about a basketball team, but about a coach and his relationship with his team.
Also, in a larger sense, the film is a love letter to a time and atmosphere. Indiana high school basketball is right up there with Texas high school football or Boston college hockey; it is a passion, a calling, a religion. The film captures that tone perfectly.
Along with the high school players are a trio of standout performances, one of which gets unfairly maligned. First is Gene Hackman, a man with two Academy Awards who likely deserves more. He is at the top of his game here as coach Dale, with all the mannerisms and movements of a longtime basketball coach. But it is his transformation over the course of the film, culminating with his line, "I love you guys," is priceless.
As Shooter, Hopper strikes just the right note between being in control and out. His alcoholism controls him, but Hopper knows how to avoid caricature and is believable, even as he jumps up and down on the bed celebrating at the end of the film.
Then, there is Barbara Hershey, saddled with the most difficult task: The love interest in a sports movie. But unlike Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham or even Rene Russo in Major League, Hershey is given few character traits to work with – the film's lone drawback. But she does everything she can with Myra, and thankfully her best work is seen in the film's special features.
Special mention should also be made of Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score and Fred Murphy's cinematography, both of which go a long way towards capturing the feel of Indiana hoops. In addition, this is a film that benefits greatly from being shot on location, rather than on a Los Angeles sound stage; there's no substitute for the look and feel of a real high school gym in a real small town.
The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For a film 19 years old, it looks outstanding. There is some film grain visible, especially in the scene between Hackman and Shooter (Dennis Hopper) at Shooter's cabin. But there are no visible digital flaws – any picture problems come from the original prints, not the transfer to DVD.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is not quite as vibrant as one would hope. The rear channels do not have the chance to truly envelop the viewer in the game scenes. But again, for a nearly two decade-old film, the sound is clear and the dialogue is easy to understand.
The only extra on disc one comes when writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh team up for a commentary track. They do a pretty decent job of filling the track, though there are gaps in between individual stories. Neither man falls into the trap of just talking about what is going on in the film at that point, but instead they tell interesting stories about the background of the film, the pre-production process, and problems with the NCAA, among others.
The second disc offers up a half-hour documentary that talks not just about the film, but about basketball in Indiana. For those that have never lived in the state (or, like myself, were born there but left at a very early age), it is the closest that any part of America gets to the passion felt around the world for soccer. In small towns, the high school basketball game rivals as a meeting place, social event and the shaping of the town identity. The documentary does an excellent job of exploring that dynamic.
But the best special feature on Hoosiers - for my money, the best feature on any sports movie DVD ever – is the 40 minute film of the actual 1954 Indiana state high school championship game, accompanied by the radio call of the game. It looks terrible by today's standards, of course, but it is such an interesting piece of nostalgia for anyone truly interested in the legend and lore of Indiana basketball.
A set of deleted scenes rounds out the second disc, with a specific introduction for each scene by Pizzo and Anspaugh. The scenes are in decent condition, and add some interesting back-story to the characters, including some of Hershey's best work. In particular is a scene cut out of the pep rally parade where Hershey talks about her future plans; it really ties Myra into the story in an interesting, bittersweet way that makes her character's arc similar to that of Dale.
A trailer on disc one and a photo gallery on disc two round out the special features.
ESPN.com's Page 2 named Hoosiers the fourth best sports film of all time, behind Rocky, Raging Bull and Bull Durham. What Hoosiers has in common with those three films is the use of sport as a metaphor for redemption, for second chances. This is not just a story about Indiana basketball – though it captures that spirit perfectly – but about how people rebound from personal disappointment and, in some cases, tragedy. Basketball is just the device used to get to those emotions. MGM has truly done right by this classic with its two-disc edition, and it is worthy of DVDTalk's top rating.