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When the Game Stands Tall

Sony Pictures // PG // December 9, 2014
List Price: $40.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 3, 2014 | E-mail the Author
Losses are a part of any sport. It's natural. It doesn't matter how good of a team you're on or how good you are, there's always going to be the possibility that an opponent is just having a better day, has trained more, is naturally focused on your weak spot. In many sports, which don't play as frequently, the idea of a 10 or 20-game winning streak is incredible, a monumental amount of athletic effort. This is the context in which one must approach De La Salle's Spartans football team and their 151-game winning streak. Led by coach Bob Ladouceur, they set a record that pro teams don't come anywhere near, by a margin of more than 50 games. Ladouceur himself has an incredible record, a win-loss ratio as head coach of 399 to 25 from 1979 to 2012, when he finally retired. When the Game Stands Tall is a dramatic adaptation of the Spartans' 2004 season, in which they suffered a terrible personal loss, as well as the end of that miraculous winning streak.

Jim Caviezel plays Ladouceur, who knows in advance he's looking at a tough year. Many of his senior players are leaving, and his assistant coach, Terry Eidsen (a nearly unrecognizable Michael Chiklis) has just volunteered them to play the best high school football team in the country, Long Beach Polytechnic. Still, he's ready to go until a seizure caused by a clogged artery nearly kills him, and he's forced to adopt a new, more stress-free life until the doctors clear him. True tragedy quickly follows, when the team's star running back Terrance Kelly (Stephan James) is suddenly and unexpectedly murdered while trying to give someone a ride home from a party. By the time the season starts, Ladouceur is back on the field, but his challenge lies in bringing his new team together, including his senior-class son, Danny (Matthew Daddario).

In the sports movie canon, When the Game Stands Tall is a slightly above average effort, generally becoming most engaging when the players are on the field. It features spectacular football sequences and underwhelming drama, weighed down by unnecessary subplots and a painful amount of exposition, not to mention a number of genre cliches (director Thomas Carter's alternative to a big, rousing third-act speech is to have seven of them spread throughout the film). It's a film that will play to the already converted, a sentiment which isn't a joke about faith-based production company Affirm Films (the movie is actually fairly light on religious sentiment, only including a bit of it around the fringes). It's a movie for an audience that doesn't want their expectations defied, going in hoping to see an inspirational film about a high school football team without any particular notions of how it should get there.

The filmmakers have a coup in second unit director Allan Graf, whose football sequences are genuinely dazzling, packed to the brim with last-minute passes and painful sacks. The film opens with the 151st win, featuring the senior team working as a well-oiled machine, and the sight of the plays is genuinely exhilarating, even without the suspense of knowing whether or not they're going to win. There's never any question of who's doing what or why, with each sequence built for clarity. That opening scene, however, is punctuated with interjections from Mickey Ryan (Clancy Brown), father of star player Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), who seems almost like a character that exists for no reason but to explain what's happening with the team or the players until it finally becomes clear that he's Chris' father. The whole opening half hour has this problem, with everyone from radio announcers to Caviezel summarizing and reminding the viewer what the stakes are.

On the other hand, Carter brings some much-needed diversity to the film, making sure to give Terrance and his close friend Cam Colvin (Ser'Darius Blain) a bit of the spotlight. It could be criticized that both characters basically disappear halfway through the movie, with drama between Chris and Mickey replacing their thread, but both Terrance and Cam are rounded and interesting characters, so it works anyway. It's also in keeping with the film in general, which has so many factual elements to touch on that it often feels overstuffed with threads that fall by the wayside, including Danny's desire for his father's attention and / or approval, minor tension between Bob and his wife Bev (Laura Dern), and the arrogance of a new player on the team, Tayshon Lanear (Jessie Usher). The film works best when it's focused on the game, finding a lesson in the way the 151-game winning streak almost outshines the sport itself. The filmmakers would've done well to take more of a cue from their own title.

The Blu-ray
When the Game Stands Tall arrives on Blu-ray via Sony in a combo pack featuring the Blu-ray disc, a DVD copy, and an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The image depicts a championship celebration at the bottom, and images of Caviezel and Alexander Ludwig at the top. To me, it seems like Matthew Daddario would've been a better choice, or perhaps the both of them, with Chiklis and Dern behind them, but what do I know. The two-disc Vortex Blu-ray case is slid inside a glossy slipcover featuring the same artwork.

The Video and Audio
Sony offers the film with a 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound, and being a 2014 film, it's of the expected reference quality. Fine detail is razor-sharp. Colors are presented accurately, from the pristine white of the De La Salle uniforms to the green field grass. No banding, sharpening, or artifacts can be seen. Each game roars with the intensity of a live sporting event, with excellent crowd ambience that will fill the living room, and each thunderous, bone-cracking tackle will have the viewer recoiling in their seat. Dialogue and music sounds great. A pristine picture and an energizing soundtrack. Additional French, Spanish, and Portuguese DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks are included, as well as a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio Descriptive track. There are also English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. All bonus features, including the commentaries, are also subtitled in English.

The Extras
The disc starts off with an audio commentary by director Thomas Carter. He talks about the elements from Bob Ladouceur's methods and the parts of the true story that he wanted to adapt into a film. In a way, it's almost a technical commentary, only occasionally talking more about the characters, possibly due to the fact that it's a true story. An average track. This is accompanied by "Undefeated: Making When the Game Stands Tall" (12:49), a general making-of featurette that includes interviews with Carter, Ladouceur, author Neil Hayes, producer David Zelon, and most of the cast. It's a bit better than the standard EPK fare, moving along at a brisk pace and keeping film footage to a minimum.

The rest of the extras are "Exclusive to Blu-ray", and they kick off with a second commentary, a scene-specific audio commentary with Carter and Ladouceur. This is a somewhat more interesting commentary, in which Carter basically serves as interviewer, asking about Ladouceur's coaching and teaching methods, and getting into his ideas about how to play football and talk to teenagers. At the outset, it sounds like they're mostly going to comment on the football games, but Ladouceur goes into more personal memories, albeit briefly, including the death of Terrance Kelly. He also makes no effort to hide the film's numerous dramatic liberties with the truth, almost providing a better illustration than Carter does on his own about how Hayes' book was adapted for the screen.

Six deleted / extended scenes (14:30) were mostly rightfully cut from the movie, including a brief food fight and an extended speech from Ladouceur (as if the film needed any more). The one that might've been a good save is a conversation between Daddario and Dern, a relationship that is mostly unexplored in the finished film.

The disc wraps up with two featurettes. The first is "Gridiron Action" (7:43), which sits down with Allan Graf. Graf, as he puts it, wears three hats: second unit director, stunt coordinator, and football director. This fascinating clip dives into the shooting of the football sequences, which are one of the best aspects of the film. You see the team that Graf works with and his relationship with them, with comments from the younger cast about what it was like to work with them. The disc rounds out with "The Heart and Soul of a Program: Bob Ladouceur" (11:50), which, like his commentary, takes a look inside his philosophy about teenagers and what it takes to connect with them, beyond and above football.

The disc opens trailers for Affirm Films, Annie, Moms' Night Out, a commercial for American Family Insurance, and then more trailers for The Song and Soul Surfer. The same trailers can be accessed under "Previews" in the special features menu. No trailer for When the Game Stands Tall is included. All of the video features on the disc are presented in HD.

When the Game Stands Tall is a somewhat sloppy movie, but it's also sloppy in the way that its target audience isn't going to care about or notice. They will watch the film to follow an inspirational football team, and the film is so basically inoffensive and occasionally engaging that such an outcome doesn't seem like much of a problem. Worth a rental.

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