Sure, some people seeing Ron Howard's Rush in theaters right now remember the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda on the Formula One circuit in the 1970s. But I'm betting plenty more of them had never heard of the drivers, or their rivalry, or Formula One, for that matter. Luckily, because Rush is a very good movie, that lack of knowledge doesn't matter in the least.
There are great sports movies that capitalize on a national love of the sport or a very famous story to earn their chills-- think of 2004's Miracle, or Rudy, or the endless nostalgia of Field of Dreams. But there are some that have an extra power to sweep up the people who have never heard of the sport in question, or who might not even think they care about sports at all until they wind up jumping out of their seats and fist-pumping in the end. And with Rush converting Formula One skeptics all over the nation, we're celebrating 6 of those movies (OK, one's a TV show)-- starting, of course, with Rush itself. Take a look, and let us know your own picks in the comments.
Rush by Katey Rich Though it's the refined, European alternative to homegrown NASCAR, Formula One always seemed just as dull as our native sport-- a bunch of cars driving in circles, with most of the excitement coming from terrified anticipation of a crash. At the end of Rush I had no more desire to watch a car race, much less participate in one, but I completely understood what drives people to the sport. Particularly in the 1970s, when Formula One was even more dangerous than it is now, wanting to become a driver was basically a suicide mission, which makes our heroes James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) even more enigmatic. But getting to know them unveils the risk-taking and desperation to succeed that drives both of them, and Anthoy Dod Mantle's energetic cinematography conveys the thrill of strapping into that driver's seat, even if I'd never try it yourself. Give me two more Formula One drivers as worth following as these two, and I might see the magic of driving in circles after all.
Cool Runnings by Mack Rawden Most teams are collections of individual players, but the ones worth remembering are living, breathing entities that take on personalities of their own, like the Lakers of the mid-80s-- pure glitz, glamour and Magic-- or the Celtics of the same time, blue-collar to the bone. Watching Cool Runnings on cable for the first time as a child taught me that these same loveble qualities can be found in any sport, even, believe or not, bobsledding. In director Jon Turteltaub’s capable hands, Cool Runnings is able to find a perfect balance between introducing the audience to the world and lingo of bobsledding and depicting the lovable personalities on the Jamaican squad. They’re underdogs, for sure, but more importantly, they’re relentless fighters. They have a lot of pride, and they’re unwilling to be embarrassed or outclassed. As a child, I fell in love with their spirit, and by extension, I fell in love with the Olympics and with random sports in general. From volleyball to water polo to curling to bobsledding, there’s euphoric highs and tearful lows to be found in any sport, and Cool Runnings’ stunning last act is proof of both. Feel the rhythm. Feel the ride. I’m now always ready for bobsled time.
Friday Night Lights (the TV show) by Kelly West As enjoyable as Friday Night Lights the film was, the TV series that followed serves as a perfect example of a football story brilliantly suited for both football and non-football fans alike. I am so not a fan. The only football game I watch each year is the Super Bowl, and that's more for the commercials and the halftime show than anything else. A love of football isn't required to enjoy FNL, but more than that, I appreciate how Peter Berg's drama allows us to appreciate the game for the impact it has on one particular community. It allows us to understand why football, and more specifically the Dillon Panthers, means so much to this town and the characters at the center of the story. The Panthers are the beating heart of Dillon. The game unites the town. People want to be a part of the Panthers' success, whether as a player, a booster, a coach or a spectator, and through their stories, we understand why this sport matters so much. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
Warrior by Sean O'Connell Warrior takes on any number of zeitgeisty topics. Mixed-martial arts. Ton Hardy. Military veterans returning from combat situations in the Middle East. But Gavin O’Connor’s masterful MMA movie plucks our heartstrings by adhering to tried-and-true storytelling devices that power the best entries in the sports-movie genre. Estranged brothers fighting to reconcile. An alcoholic father, learning how to be a mentor again. An out-of-work husband struggling to provide for his wife an child. These elements give Warrior added depth, so that when Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy Conlon (Hardy) meet in the octagon, we care despite the kicks and punches landed. I don’t give two shits about MMA, but I love the daylights out of Warrior, thanks to those human touches.
The Fighter by Eric Eisenberg As much as I respect the athleticism that it becomes to be a boxer, I can’t say that I’ve ever quite gotten it as a sport. It may be fascinating on some deeper level that I don’t get or you may need to follow it closely in order to get the most out of it. And yet there exists David O. Russell’s The Fighter, a film that has all of its characters and story deeply invested in the sport I thought I couldn't care less about. Based on a true story, the plot comes straight out of the boxing history books, but it’s the amazing way in which Russell layers it and the performances that makes the movie an incredibly entertaining success. Regardless of your feelings about boxing, the film not only makes you want to leap out of your seat cheering for lead character Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) in the ring, but also while working out issues with his crack-addicted brother (Christian Bale), his beautiful girlfriend (Amy Adams), and his crazy family, headed up by a strong matriarch (Melissa Leo). There’s probably something a little more to get out of The Fighter if you’re a boxing fan, but it truly doesn’t matter because it’s just that good.
A Knight's Tale by Kristy Puchko Go ahead, laugh. But if this 2001 action-adventure taught me anything, it’s that jousting is a sport, and a badass one at that. Sure, I first saw this willfully anachronistic feature from writer-director Brian Helgeland because I was still crushing hard on Heath Ledger from 10 Things I Hate About You. But in the story of a young peasant’s rise to the top of the jousting world, I at long last found an entry point into this recurring tournament trope of fantasy tales. Helgeland thoughtfully establishes the rules of jousting in easy to follow terms, then packed his action sequences with rousing modern pop and rock songs you’d hear blaring at any self-respecting sports venue, like Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business,” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” It’s not like A Knight’s Tale inspired me to take up jousting or anything, but it finally made me understand the motivations to do such a seemingly insane thing as hurtling at an opponent on horseback who is hoping to drive a giant wooden stick right into your face. This wild re-imagining helped me see fantasy in a new light, and spurred me to dig back into the genre I’d written off long ago. And I’ll always be grateful for that….and for introducing me to the comedic wonder that is Alan Tudyk.