"Knute Rockne, All-American" (1940)
You wouldn’t expect much verisimilitude from a football film dating back a good seventy-plus years. But that’s exactly what comes across through the otherwise stately biopic of the revolutionary Rockne. The film boasted an in-depth insight into the world of Notre Dame football through the eyes of the player-turned-coach who helped bring the school the sort of nationwide fame by pioneering several contemporary play strategies and ideas before his untimely death in the early '30s. Rockne wasn’t just an innovator and a master strategist, but thanks to Pat O’Brien’s kindly performance, also a charismatic salesman and deal-maker, helping spread the world about collegiate football through the media and effectively becoming one of sport's earliest hype men. The picture takes great pains to emphasize the relationship between Rockne and player George Gipp, played by none other than Ronald Reagan. The moment that lives in movie history, and the one that got “Knute Rockne, All-American” entered into the National Film Registry, is probably the recreation of the speech where Rockne proposes to his team, in regards to their sick teammate, to “win one for the Gipper.” But lost within that moment is the fact that directors Lloyd Bacon and (an uncredited) William K. Howard helped capture some of the most exciting, in-your-face football footage at that point, some of which still holds up today.
"The Last Boy Scout" (1991)
In the opening moments of Tony Scott’s breakneck action comedy, a running back played by Billy Blanks sweats, curses, and prepares for the play of his life. Once on the field, he takes the ball and removes a revolver from his shoe, charging to the end zone while firing on opposing players, determined to end his life with one last touchdown and a bullet to the head. Ending this scene with the upbeat opening credits set to the intro to a fictional “Friday Night Football” showcase is an audacious punctuation to the suggestion that glory is all there is, that on-field immortality is the same as off-field immortality. Shane Black’s hysterical murder mystery gives Bruce Willis one of the best roles of his career as private investigator Joe Hallenbeck, a down-and-out schmuck who finds himself teamed with disgraced pro Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) pitted against a memorably poncy villain played by Taylor Negron. Hallenbeck’s burnt-out patter with Dix has the edge of noir with a post-modern sensibility, and the picture’s subversive violence and inventive action suggests Willis could have become one of our great leading men, and not just a multi-purpose toy for middling action directors. The film’s close features some of the most amusing on-field action you’re likely never see again, including a literal horse race that appears years before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s similar chase tactics in “True Lies.”
"The Longest Yard" (1974)
There’s no actor more suited to playing a footballer than Burt Reynolds, classically masculine but with a bullish physicality and brusque manner more suited to the gridiron than the silver screen. He was enough of a talent, fortunately, that meatheaded action pictures weren’t the only projects he took up, and his natural charisma was able to carry a large ensemble in the case of this comedy. Reynolds gives off the appropriate devil-may-care attitude that not only allows him to capture a rapscallion’s wit as a portrait of an over-entitled era of athletes, but also as a protagonist that can believably go on a bender in an opening scene and beat his girlfriend, and somehow eventually win the audience’s trust. Reynolds’ Paul Crewe is eventually locked away in prison, where the power dynamics have shifted completely, and Reynolds plays both the sudden impotence of a pampered celebrity and the emboldened daredevil attitude of a man with plans. Superior to the tone-deaf, pro-bully remake, this hard-fought variation of slobs versus snobs pits the inmates against the guards in a winner-take-all football game, and the climatic match is funny because it trusts the irreverence of its concept, not because of an over-reliance on jokes like the Adam Sandler version.
"North Dallas Forty" (1979)
The origins of Nick Nolte’s glass-cutting growl can be found here, in this bruising, battered true-life story of a wildly colorful Dallas Cowboys team (here called the North Dallas Bulls). The games are long and brutal, sure, but the nights are longer and wilder, and in the mornings, the hangovers are as powerful as the knees and shoulders are sore. “North Dallas Forty” is purposely slack, coming in 1979 at the tail-end of brutal ensemble pictures where men behave badly with no apologies and protagonists are never quite likable. Which makes it the ideal vehicle for Nick Nolte: here as a womanizing wide receiver named Phil Elliot, whose real problem is drugs, both the recreational narcotic kind but also the painkillers that keep him on his feet, punch-drunk, and a slave to the franchise. The picture is funny for its bracing honesty. This from an era where football heroes may have been rebellious and uncouth, but also an era when we rarely caught a peek behind the curtain, where the locker room was the stuff of inspirational rah-rah speeches, not apathetic fist-fights between teammates. Ted Kotcheff’s film is essentially a workplace comedy, but the employees are braindead and wealthy, and the benefits are glory and groupies in equal amounts. Only in the '70s could you end a sports film not with a big game, but with a free-frame of a quitting hero shrugging.