The endless proliferation of streaming services, and pay television generally, means you can end up watching all manner of movies beyond your range of interests. It is the paradox of excess choice. When you can see any movie you like any time you want, you end up having seen pretty well every movie that interests you.
So then, in a somewhat peculiar fashion, you watch movies by happenstance, much like we used to watch TV. You want to kill 90 minutes and you’re too lazy to read a book, or perhaps there’s a social element involved ...
In any event, such is my justification for watching a completely run-of-the-mill Mark Wahlberg film, Invincible, the other night.
The plot is as corny as can be. An unemployed, working-class Philadelphia schoolteacher, down on his luck, deserted by his wife and making ends meet by tending bar, attends an open tryout for the city’s professional football team. And yes, the Cinderella fairy story comes true. Against all odds he makes the cut, becomes a star and wins both his fortune and his true, new, love. That the film is based on a true story only serves to emphasise the perfect American cliche it embodies.
Almost from the first moment, you can foretell every development of the plot, almost every scene. And yet this doesn’t detract much, if anything, from the film’s enjoyment. Wahlberg is a sympathetic, agreeable and winning actor. The familiarity of his characteristic moves and gestures is part of their charm.
All of which leads me to the further reflection of just how very well the Americans make movies about sport. Baseball, football, ice hockey, boxing — Americans relish the epic potential of sport. This most often resides in the existential struggle of the individual. Even team stories are treated mainly as an amalgam of such individual struggles.
It is tempting to see American sports movies as expressions of what is almost the unofficial US national ideology: the rugged individual and his triumph. Certainly the British don’t do sports films anywhere nearly as well as the Americans. The archetypal dramatic arc of sports achievement lends itself to plenty of banter and incidental humour, the better to highlight the central, heroic drama. But it doesn’t so easily lend itself to routine British irony.
Chariots of Fire and Bend It Like Beckham are almost the only British sports films I remember really enjoying.
We Australians don’t do sports films all that well either. We do the bush, in all its varieties, pretty well, but not sports. Indians on the other hand do sports films, especially cricket films, brilliantly. They also make superb films about hockey. And weddings, which in India involve all the grandeur, colour, staging, razzle dazzle and tension of the greatest sporting occasions.
They also write the best novels about weddings. Consider Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. But if we go down that path we’ll have to consider the role of sport in literature — I think that’s underdone by everybody, maybe because sport fits much more naturally into cinema than it does in the novel. But I digress.
There are two very specific problems with sports films. One is that you have to present the fictionalised action sequences as compellingly as real sports does. This is accomplished superbly in the latest Rocky boxing film, Creed. Invictus, on the other hand, about the victorious South African World Cup rugby team, was so lame partly because Matt Damon and his fellow actors could not possibly enact rugby sequences anywhere near as exciting as those produced by professional players. The film should have used footage of real rugby matches, whatever the editing and continuity challenges involved.
The other problem is that so many intensely followed sports are so regional. You could not make an Aussie rules film and expect a natural audience of more than half of Australia. The same is true in reverse for rugby league.
But it’s surprising we don’t do more with cricket. Given all that dramatic and heroic material, the diverse and compelling characters involved and the enthralling complexity of the game, American filmmakers would hit it to the fence every time.