What is arguably the grandfather of the modern underdog sports movie enters the high-def fray. But don't go getting all excited just yet.
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) hasn't coached basketball in twelve years, but the people of the tiny Indiana town of Hickory are desperate for someone to lead their band of Huskers, so Dale accepts the position. His brash coaching style clashes with what the town and its team have come to expect, and his decision to bring in the town drunk (Dennis Hopper) as his assistant only causes more friction; but his methods put the team on the winning track, eventually giving them a shot at the state championship.
Hoosiers has lost some of its luster over the years, and I think this is in large part due to the multitude of copies/clones/rip-offs that followed in its wake; there's almost no getting around the feeling of familiarity that creeps in at certain points (I feel the same about Breaking Away, which is arguably the great-grandfather of the modern underdog sports movie). That doesn't stop it from being a near-great movie, though. The plot may offer the same calculated button-pushing that's since become a trademark of the genre (the same sort of calculated button-pushing director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo would later employ in Rudy), but the devil's in the details, and it's in the details that the real strengths of this movie can be found. Of particular note is the filmmaker's feel for small-town life, specifically that of a town defined almost entirely by its sports program (the city I live in isn't completely analogous to Hickory, but it's close enough for government work). You get the sense that many of the townsmen played while they were in school, had their moments of glory, and are now living vicariously through their children. And although it's never spelled out, I would imagine Hopper's character once believed his athletic prowess would get him out of town and propel him to greatness, and he turned to drink when this didn't come to pass.
There's also one thing Hoosiers doesn't do that sets it apart from other sports films: it doesn't create contrived, completely artificial conflicts between members of the team. Sure, this is at least partially due to the fact that the movie doesn't concentrate on the players the way many of its brethren do, but it's still nice not to see a couple of idiots get into a fight over nothing, then later realize the error of their ways and become the best of friends. If I had a nickel for every time I've seen that happen in real life, I wouldn't have enough money to use a payphone.
Two aspects of Hoosiers bothered me when I first saw it and continue to bother me to this day. The first is the romance between Hackman and the teacher played by Barbara Hershey. Depending on how you look at it, it's either underdeveloped or completely superfluous; it's not given enough time to evolve naturally, consequently coming off as nothing more than a machination of the plot. Some of the particulars of it lead me to believe it was in fact given more room to breathe in the script (notice how Hershey's mother comes and goes), but who's to say? And then there's the movie's score, which, oddly enough, irritates me more than the romantic subplot. I can't imagine why anyone, much less the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, would employ a cheesy synthesizer and the worst programmed percussion this side of Ladyhawke in the music for a film about a Midwestern high school basketball team in the early 1950s. Sure, he scored enough movies to warrant a bad performance or two, but his work here (which somehow managed to score an Oscar nomination) is almost mind-bogglingly awful.
It would be out of the question to discuss Hoosiers and not comment (however briefly) on the performances of Gene Hackman (who should have been nominated for an Oscar) and Dennis Hopper (who was nominated). Not many people can convey likeability and authority in equal measure, but Hackman makes it look easy. As for Hopper, his character's story parallels his own to a degree, and I while suppose you could call it typecasting, there's no denying that he was the right man for the role. (I was about to make mention of how you could argue that 1986 was the best year of Hopper's career, what with his work here, as well as his turns in both Blue Velvet and River's Edge, but then I remembered that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was also released that year. So much for that idea, huh?)