Tired of the Olympics?

Although NBC is still airing tape-delayed coverage for another month, the soon-to-be completed 26th Summer Olympics left millions of televiewers worldwide with indelible memories and a thirst for more pre-packaged drama.

To fill the void, there is the Hollywood exercise in formulaism known as the sports movie, each with its inevitable slow-motion climax. The poignant saga of an underdog succeeding against all odds... A rag-tag bunch of misfits coming together under a common cause... a talented, headstrong phenom mentored by an elder sage... or a slapstick send-up dependent on scatological humour. If cheap chortles thy seek, turn to the cult hockey classic Slapshot (1977), and the real Hanson brothers. And while golf and comedy seemingly go together like Puffy performing at a fund-raiser for George Dubya (their shared stance on gun control notwithstanding), Caddyshack (1980) is a superb slapstick farce, featuring Bill Murray as Assistant Greenskeeper Carl, Chevy Chase as an idle-rich Zen scholar (“a fruit with no holes is not a fruit — and a donut with no hole is a danish”), and a short-tempered Ted Knight as the foil to Rodney Dangerfield, cast against type as an obnoxious wise-ass spouting one-liners.

Dewy-eyed sentimentalists who spent their playing days spot-welded to a bench sing the praises of Rudy (1993), a story of a young man bereft of size and talent who yearns to play football for Notre Dame. In Hoosiers (1986), Gene Hackman delivers a superb performance as a no-nonsense coach who, unlike the ‘General’ his role drew upon, never displays his soiled Charmin. Despite being part and parcel of the Reagan era, this paean to basketball’s sacred place in 1950s rural Indiana has a certain poignancy.

While Field of Dreams was an extra-base hit at box offices in 1989, steer clear unless you wish to win admirers with your James Earl Jones impression. This work of American bathos created the sentiment that perpetrated yuppie-catering multinational-named retro ballparks on major-league baseball.

The most realistic football flick, North Dallas Forty (1979), adapted from former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent’s novel, is similarly successful in conveying the anguish of a receiver (played by Nick Nolte) playing out the string. Also, Burt Reynolds quarterbacking a team of convicts against a team of prison guards in the hilarious The Longest Yard (1974), grows ever more prophetic, in light of the recent legal troubles of some NFL players.

Higher concept films often examine individual sports, such Chariots of Fire (winner of the 1981 Best Picture Oscar), a case study of 1920s British runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, or 1998’s Without Limits, a biography of 1970s middle-distance sensation Steve Prefontaine, starring Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland.

Anything with genuine verisimilitude is a good pick, most notably writer-director Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham (1988), a treatment of baseball’s bush leagues. Shelton, who also wrote and directed White Men Can’t Jump (1992) creates two memorable characters: Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, and Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis. Sheldon’s opus endures, although it begat the Costner vanity trips Tin Cup and For The Love of the Game.

But beyond these rare instances of good film-making is a cavalcade of trite characters and derivative dialogue, often pilfered by coaches losing at halftime. Those who have never relinquished their inner thirteen-year-old would have it no other way. Hence, Major League and its insipid sequels: Diggstown, Necessary Roughness, The Program, The Waterboy, and Varsity Blues, and the abjectly awful Blue Chips, which crushed the career of a rising young thespian, Shaquille O’Neal, forcing him to sign a $123-million NBA contract to make ends meet. For every intelligent treatment of the sweet science of boxing, such as Raging Bull, where Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of middleweight Jake La Motta, there are at least three of 1979’s The Main Event, where in an act of hubris even for her, Barbra Streisand manages pugilist Ryan O’Neal. Countering Rocky, the 1976 Best Picture Oscar, are Rocky II thru Rocky V, each largely consisting of close-ups of Stallone’s pecs and lats.

Ultimately, why the sports-movie formula fails to satisfy is that scripted athletic drama can never match the real thing; ambitious works like Spike Lee’s He Got Game and Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday both needed gratuitous nudity to keep audiences awake.

Not surprisingly, the most riveting recent treatments of sports are Hoop Dreams and When We Were Kings, documentaries examining the African-American athletic experience.

No screenwriter should try to churn out a script surpassing the sheer drama of the Olympics, World Cup, or Stanley Cup playoffs, but given what artistic merit is worth in Hollywood, the genre should remain in favour for some time. Kick back and embrace the armchair athlete within.

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