It’s 1976 and 30-year-old Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) can play football. He plays it better than anyone in his neighborhood. When Vince shows up in the muddy lot that he and his buddies substitute for a field his team always wins. The rest of his life is a mess, but he and his friends have their nighttime pickup games and they have their beloved Philadelphia Eagles. At first that’s enough to get Vince through the day, but as he struggles with a variety of low paying jobs and a series of relationship disappointments, he looks around and realizes he’s 30 and he’s never really succeeded at anything. He gets a shot at changing that, when the new coach of his struggling Eagles holds open tryouts. It’s probably nothing more than a publicity stunt, but with his life in shambles and after a lot of prodding from his friends Vince, who has never even played college ball, gives it a shot.
The Eagles’ open tryouts turn out to be a joke. Head coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) puts the ragged assortment of pudgy, beer-swilling Eagles superfans who show up through the paces anyway. After watching fat guys run the 40-yard dash for the better part of a day, he stumbles on Vince. He’s fast. He’s impressive. Vince, assuming he won’t make the cut, finishes his workout and walks out to his car. Vermeil follows him and suddenly, a nobody from the neighborhood is on an NFL squad. Vince has a chance to stay on the team, but to do it he’ll have to beat out dozens of professionals in training camp. Vermeil, the other players, and even the media give him no shot.
Based on the true story of Vince Papale, Invincible approaches football from the perspective of individual achievement rather than team camaraderie. Most of the film is spent following Wahlberg as he roams Papale’s Philly neighborhood, tends bar and knocks around with his friends. By the time he finally tries out for the team, we’re inside the head of this character. Not just the guy he is in the moment, but where he came from, who his friends, are, what matters to him. Some might complain that the film takes too long to get to the football, but Invincible isn’t as much a football movie as it is an examination of what it takes to have heart. It’s more a character study than a sports film, football is just a bonus.
Papale has heart to spare. His wife divorces him, leaving behind a note that proclaims he’s nothing, and always will be nothing. Vince carries that note with him during training camp, knowing this is his one chance to prove her wrong. He takes risks, he pushes himself. He’s unpopular with the other players. He doesn’t have time to get the girl. He’s scared to death of disappointing everyone. He’s outclassed.
Wahlberg is good as Papale, and most importantly he fits in with the motley assortment of mustachioed factory workers who make up his neighborhood. He’s not going to win an Oscar, but he’s a perfect fit as a struggling every man. But then I’m to the point where I expect good work from Mark. The guy has established himself as a consistent performer. He’ll never blow anyone away, but you can count on Marky Mark to deliver The surprise in Invincible isn’t Wahlberg, it’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin’s Elizabeth Banks. She’s in a tough position here, because her character is kind of a bad movie cliché: the perfect, pretty girl who moves into town at just the right time to latch on to Vince. The way she’s written in the script makes the role a thankless one, but Banks brings so much energy to the part you’ll fall in love with her anyway.
It’s not perfect, but Invincible works well as an uplifting study in hard work, humility, and perseverance. I hate to use the word “hero” when talking about sports icons, but if you have to idolize a guy who throws around a ball for a living, Vince Papale is the one to pick. The film plays out perfectly, hitting every note with practiced precision. Its score deserves special praise, a stellar mix of period specific rock and some of the best underdog makes good orchestral I’ve ever heard. Like everything about this film, it’s a moving, uplifting, and a surprise. Sports movies are a dime a dozen, but Invincible lifts itself beyond the genre to tell the simple, true story of a man beating the odds through sheer force of will. Maybe Vince Papale isn’t a hero, but like Rocky, Rudy, or any of the other classic sports figures we idolize, but he comes damn close.