The latest in Disney's line of films about real-life sports figures covers Vince Papale, a bartender and substitute teacher who won a spot on the 1976 Philadelphia Eagles after an open tryout. Well-made, but without the satisfying ending of films like Miracle or Glory Road, Invincible will find its real niche with football fans and in the home market.
First-time director Ericson Core (who was also the film's cinematographer) does an excellent job capturing Philadelphia in the 1970s, a gritty, desperate time when the city was plagued by strikes, layoffs, and reduced expectations all around. Renowned for its tough fans (who booed Santa Claus during one half-time show), the city had suffered through consecutive losing seasons from its sports franchises when Eagles owner Leonard Tose (Michael Nouri) hired college coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, sporting a ridiculous wig) to lead the team. One of Vermeil's first steps was to hold open tryouts, a public-relations stunt that drew scores of dreamers hoping for a position on the team.
As Brad Gann's script reminds viewers a bit too insistently, no one expected much from Vince Papale, especially not the wife who walks out on him as the movie opens. Even Vince doesn't really believe he can make the team. In one of the film's many astute moments, he has his bag already packed when cuts are announced, convinced he will be the first to go. His doubts almost cripple his relationship with Janet (Elizabeth Banks), on the rebound herself from an affair with a married man.
With its somber hues and intimations of defeat, the first half of the film takes viewers into a hard-edged, blue-collar world Disney rarely visits. It wouldn't be a Disney film if Vince didn't make the squad, but what's curious is how little achieving his dreams improves his life. In fact, the personal animosities, hellish physical demands, guilt over abandoning his friends, and constant pressure to perform seem more like punishments. Invincible has very little pro football footage, and what it shows is often just a violent blur. That's partly due to the fact that Papale doesn't become a champion, but more because the filmmakers want to concentrate on Vince as part of a tight-knit South Philly community. It's a commendable approach, but one without the easy uplift of most sports films.
Wahlberg, in fine physical shape, turns in a restrained performance, leaving most of the acting chores to a convincing Kevin Conway as Vince's father Frank, Michael Rispoli as a sympathetic bartender, and Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff and Michael Kelly as close friends. These are fully rounded, difficult characters who get enough time to explain themselves, another sign of integrity in a film that never settles for easy answers.