I’m not much for sports hokum. The elegiac bunk of The Natural, Field of Dreams, or even Any Given Sunday reveals more about the filmmakers’ insecurities than the game being played and the characters who play it. But even I am not immune from hokum anchored by Gene Hackman and based on the true story of the 1954 Indiana state high school basketball champions from tiny Milan.
Hackman is the new coach with a dark past, bringing a fundamental style of play and stubborn ways to a cloistered small town that does not want him. Barbara Hershey is the teacher leery of his influence. Their conversations about what constitutes success are smartly written (she loathes the small town, plans the escape of her students and views Hackman’s” hoop dreams” as an anchor keeping young men from getting out). Dennis Hopper is the alcoholic assistant coach, redeemed in the eyes of his player son as the team battles adversity. David beats Goliath, and the music swells along with the heart.
The performances are all strong, and the casting of the fresh-faced team is perfect. The boys, town and milieu feel 1950s, as does the play, and the boys can play. One only needs to watch the overrated White Men Can’t Jump to realize the foolishness of casting non-players; Woody Harrelson is passable, Wesley Snipes ludicrous. The film is also chock full of inspiring and exciting vignettes as the boys march forward to victory.
Hackman is commanding, in his sparring with Hershey, when he confronts the team’s star player, who is in the middle of a 1950s version of a holdout, and in his handling of the overbearing townsfolk. I also like his simple, homespun speeches:
Ah, Bobby Knight.
This one is better:
There are a few problems. The love affair between Hershey and Hackman seems both improbable and awkward. I no more want to see him kiss a younger woman than Tommy Lee Jones. The score is also very 80s, stirring but techno infused. But it’s still one of the better sports films made.