If you were to take the big four American sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) and ask me which sport would make me prefer to have my tonsils taken out again over watching for pleasure, then it would probably be basketball. I’d rather watch women’s golf than sit down for any basketball game that doesn’t involve the West Virginia University Mountaineers (my college). So, maybe that already had me predisposed to dislike the sports classic, Hoosiers, since I can’t enjoy the sport of basketball itself. However, I would be willing to bet large sums of money that even if I were a die-hard cager fan but still had my film critic sensibilities, I would still recognize this film for what it is which is an admittedly entertaining but cliche-ridden example of the cookie-cutter productions that make up 90% of the sports film market. Had the film adhered more closely to the actual story of the 1954 Milan High basketball team perhaps I could have forgiven cliche as truth, but as the film stands, which is a highly fictionalized account of a true story, I can’t help but think its reputation is a little under-deserved.
Hoosiers, playing very loose with the historical facts, is the tale of a small, rural town’s basketball team in the 1950’s. The Hickory Huskers have just lost their old basketball coach, and in steps Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a former college coach who a national championship but has been blacklisted from coaching college ball for striking a student. With only 7 players when he arrives (one of whom that immediately quits), Norman is facing an uphill battle to turn this small (both in number of players and player size) team into a winning basketball team. Norman’s unfriendly and abrasive attitude doesn’t win him any friends with the local parents and assorted townsfolk that don’t like an out-of-towner stepping in charge of their hometown team. Dale’s problems only escalate when he signs on the alcoholic train-wreck father (Dennis Hopper) of one of his players as the team’s assistant coach. However, Dale slowly starts to shut up the locals when his team starts winning, and it looks like they could go all the way to the state championship.
First things first. Dennis Hopper’s transformation into the alcoholic Shooter was an incredible thing to watch. Along with his role in Blue Velvet, this performance only cements my opinion that Dennis Hopper at his best is one of the finest character actors around. Along with Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, this was just one of the most effective and heart-breaking portrayals of alcoholism that I’ve ever seen on film. While I would still assert that Blue Velvet was his best role (HEINEKEN! FUCK THAT SHIT! PABST BLUE RIBBON! [sorry had to do it]), this was definitely a performance that deserved the Academy Award nomination that he received for the film. Gene Hackman was good in his role although he was basically playing Gene Hackman as a basketball coach. There wasn’t anything especially original about his performance. Don’t get me started on the kids on the team who were uniformly awful actors.
My primary complaint about this film is that I feel like if you stuck a bunch of first year film school students into a room and asked them to come up with a sports film with as many genre conventions as possible, their final result would look something like Hoosiers. Let’s do a check-list. Alcoholic father of a team member finds redemption ala Tim McGraw in Friday Night Lights? Check. Smallest member of the team comes through and makes a game-winning play. Check. They win the big game. Check. The curmudgeonly coach finds his own personal redemption in this rag-tag group of players. Oh yeah. The team always looks like it’s about to lose the game but comes through at the last second. Yep. This film is a living, breathing artifact of sports cliches.
While I enjoyed the film and I’ll admit that I teared up a little bit at the end of the climactic state championship basketball game, I simply can’t get over the fact that film didn’t have an original bone in its body. It also suffered from some of the most egregious Dawson casting of any movie I’ve ever seen as all of the high school kids (except for the short one) all looked like they were in their late 20’s. I can only recommend this to hardcore sports fans, although I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that most of you have already seen Hoosiers since it’s considered a classic of the genre. I would easily recommend other sports films like Million Dollar Baby, This Sporting Life, or the TV version of Friday Night Lights well before I would recommend this particular movie.
Final Score: B-