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Thursday, June 16, 2005 09:01 pm

flicks 6-16-05

The remake of the football comedy The Longest Yard is quickly becoming one of the most successful sports movies ever made, and Cinderella Man and Kicking and Screaming are headed for respectable business. This new flurry of movies with sports themes should rejuvenate interest in some older classics, ones that avoid the pitfalls of the widely accepted clichés. Ironically, the sports genre makes normally forbidden responses acceptable to certain segments of the audience. Many guys will scoff at motion-picture sentimentality, believing that they are immune to shameless manipulation. But when it comes dressed in boxing trunks or a baseball jersey, watch the tears flow. Rocky (1976) and Field of Dreams (1989) are just thinly disguised male weepers — nothing more, nothing less. And what about Brian’s Song (1971)? Change the occupation and sex, and you have a perfect movie for the Lifetime network. Pardon me if I find this double standard a bit amusing. Overwrought emotion actually isn’t Rocky’s greatest crime. Its popularizing of the underdog formula has seriously damaged the genre for all eternity. Is it possible to make a sports film without adhering to the Rocky syndrome, in which the underdog wins against all odds or at least goes the distance?

Yes, at least a handful of films convey the reality of sports without feeling the need to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Kevin Costner starred in the best baseball movie ever made, and it completely avoided corn. Bull Durham (1988) is a gem of a satire that focuses on the day-to-day existence of minor-league players. Costner plays a seasoned catcher who is assigned to the Durham Bulls to help out an unruly pitcher, played by Tim Robbins back when he specialized in dumb-guy roles. Their working relationship is put to the test by the team groupie (Susan Sarandon), who chooses a new player every year for her personal spring training.

Sports is above all a business, and no film better portrays its capitalistic glory than the football classic North Dallas Forty (1979). One doesn’t need to be an athlete to identify with the plight of the worker players who are exploited by management at every possible turn. Nick Nolte heads a great cast as the team rebel. Perhaps the film’s greatest miracle is the fact that it doesn’t end with a big game.

Film is subjective, and choosing the best is always a matter of debate, but nearly every critic’s list of the best sports movies is likely to have Raging Bull (1980) at the top. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that. Robert De Niro gives a monumental performance as middleweight boxer Jake La Motta, a man who displays the same brutality in his private life as he does in the ring. Director Martin Scorsese does nothing to gloss over the truth, allowing his extraordinary biography to expose La Motta’s dark side.

On the sports-movie horizon is the remake of The Bad News Bears, the film that beat Rocky to the punch in the underdog sweepstakes.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (June 21): Coach Carter, Hostage, and Cursed.

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