A feel-good football tale scores with charm and sincerity.

Training Day 

A feel-good football tale scores with charm and sincerity.

Low expectations can be a wonderful thing. Expect nothing, and maybe you'll get that little outta-nowhere sumpin'-sumpin' that turns an otherwise unfulfilling occurrence into a vaguely rewarding experience. It's not as though Invincible boasts the most promising of credentials: a first-time filmmaker (Ericson Core, cinematographer for the impossible-to-watch Daredevil), a first-time screenwriter (Brad Gann), a based-on-a-true-story script that more or less mimics Rudy's underdog-to-top-dog story, Mark Wahlberg in a Boogie Nights wig, Greg Kinnear as the as-if Dick Vermeil. And getting a release in the middle of August is like getting dumped on American Eagle flights between Wichita, Kansas, and Lubbock, Texas.

True, Invincible is constructed upon Hollywood sports-movie clichés. But Invincible is also conscious enough of its formula to play like a heartfelt homage to convention. It's earnest, thoughtful, charming — it's sincere, which goes a long way.

It has to, because Invincible harbors no surprises. The movie tells the tale of former Philadelphia Eagles special teams player Vince Papale (Wahlberg), a 30-year-old part-time barkeep who wound up on the team in 1976. That's when desperate owner Leonard Tose (Michael Nouri) allowed damned near every out-of-shape male in the area to try out for the team, which had become a laughingstock. Tose's publicity stunt yielded him a three-season player in Papale, who remains the oldest rookie ever to start in the National Football League.

The best sports movies eschew the clichés — or mock them, as Ron Shelton did in the cynical fairy tale Bull Durham, or blindside and cripple them, as Ted Kotcheff did in his snarling adaptation of Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty.

But Invincible — like Rocky or Hoosiers or Breaking Away or the small number of satisfying sports movies in which the little guy triumphs — is having none of that. No metaphors here, only "real life" stuff that's so dusted off and polished that it feels utterly phony. There's no excusing those flaws. Yet Core and Gann push past them to extract from the clichés the larger, better story of a guy who has nothing to lose save for the dignity beaten out of him by pros on the field.

Papale figures to be cut every day, and one of the better scenes involves his waiting for the knock on the door that will send him to Vermeil's office for the inevitable adios. Wahlberg, a would-be action star (The Italian Job, Planet of the Apes) who has better success playing invisible men who want to be seen (Boogie Nights, I Huckabees), fills in the blanks left by the screenplay. He looks as hollow and desperate as Gann wants him to be heroic and defiant. (Kinnear, alas, just looks like Kinnear in a bad wig.)

Emblematic of how the movie works when it shouldn't is a scene that takes place in a muddy patch of turf in Papale's row-house neighborhood. It's pouring, he's just had his ass handed to him by Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys during his preseason debut, and his boys feel like Vince has abandoned them for fame and glory. So Vince strips down to his Eagles T-shirt and strides onto the field. You want to giggle at this ham-fisted display but just can't; it's a Hail Mary, a desperate act that turns the nonbeliever's incredulous gasp into the fan's approving cheer.

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