For Walt Disney Studios, inspirational true-life sports movies have lately become as permanently stenciled into the release schedule as those Tim Conway-Don Knotts slapstick comedies of the '70s. Glory Road, Remember The Titans, Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and others feature just enough class or racial consciousness to establish rooting interest in the underdog. And they all tend to overstate a team's (or player's) accomplishments: The civil-rights movement doesn't owe that much to Texas Western's win over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA Basketball championship, for example, nor can Americans credit the 1980 Olympic hockey team for single-handedly lifting the country out of Carter-era malaise. A key reason why Invincible may be the best of the lot is that it has a much healthier sense of proportion. Sure, the unlikely ascendance of 30-year-old Vince Papale from working-class suds-pumper to Philadelphia Eagles benchwarmer is a victory for the little guy, but it's still more of a personal victory, and that's what makes it touching.
Following a dismal 1975 season, the once-proud Eagles franchise hired Coach Dick Vermeil (nicely underplayed here by Greg Kinnear) away from the college ranks, where he had just led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory. The Eagles fans are a notoriously, um, passionate lot, known for pelting Santa Claus with snowballs during a halftime show and otherwise vocalizing their displeasure. Looking to shake things up, Vermeil held open tryouts prior to the 1976 season, and the only applicant to make the team was Vince Papale, a scrappy South Philly receiver who'd never even played college ball. Played by Mark Wahlberg with the innocent brio he brought to Boogie Nights, Papale transforms from part-time bartender and out-of-work substitute teacher into an Eagles player, in a scenario straight from the fantasies of every armchair super-fan.
Directed with generic slickness by cinematographer-turned-director Ericson Core, Invincible never forgets the three "R's": Rudy, The Rookie, and especially Rocky, given the story's roots in working-class South Philly. As much as Papale's tale has been massaged to fit the formula, it's easy to yield to the triumph of another runty, overaged nobody, because the humility of characters like Papale is intrinsically moving, especially in the ego-driven world of professional sports. Like the other Disney sports movies, it's too broad by half, from its overdetermined '70s hairstyles and wood-paneled ambience to a love story involving a smoking-hot, football-crazy fantasy woman (Elizabeth Banks) to the implausible hostility Papale endured from his Eagle teammates. So why is it all so easy to swallow hook, line, and sinker?