Sports movies are often beloved but rarely good. It's hard to say why it is so difficult to make a great sports movie. It could be that there is far more drama in actually following sports than there is in watching a dramatized version on film. It could also be that it is so hard to make a sports movie that doesn't seem entirely unrealistic yet is filled with the appropriate amount of drama. Whatever the case, it's about as hard to make a great sports movie as it is to hit a Jake Peavy fastball.
Despite this, it seems more and more sports films are made each year, and even as the quantity grows expansion of quality has not correlated. This has led to many films that aren't that great being recognized as classics of the genre while some great movies are buried under the avalanche of sports films descending upon multiplexes.
The following is a list of the most underrated and overrated sports films of all time.
5. "Chariots of Fire
"Million Dollar Baby
" won the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago. Real quick, can you name the two other sports movies to win Best Picture? Well, "Rocky
," obviously. Correct, can you name the other one?
Field of Dreams
? Keep Going.
? Wasn't Even Nominated.
The preceding conversation can probably be heard in countless sports bars whenever a group of people try to determine the best sports movie ever made. Clearly, that list would have to start with the three sports movies that won Oscars for Best Picture right? Well, if it does then that list will include "Chariots of Fire." That's too bad because "Chariots" is really quite dull. There's a lot of running in the film. A lot of running. Running on the beach, running on the track, enough running to send audiences running from the theater, if they weren't half asleep already. Sure, "Chariots" is a good movie: It does an excellent job of portraying the perceived differences and true similarities between two men of different religions. But, for the most part, this is just a lot of running set against an excellent score. Top 3 sports movies ever made? Ha! This isn't even top 20.
4. "Brian's Song
"Brian's Song" has deservedly earned its place as the top "guy-cry" movie of all time. It's hard for anybody with a Y chromosome to keep from welling up when Brian Piccolo (James Caan
) finally succumbs to cancer and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams
) talks about how much he means to him. But that's about ten minutes of the movie! The rest is the typical movie-of-the-week stuff (this was made for TV after all) with horribly filmed football scenes and enough schmaltz to make Penny Marshall blush. If a tear jerking ending makes a movie great then "Beaches
" must be the best movie ever made. It isn't, and this isn't close to the best sports movie. Man tears notwithstanding.
3. "The Natural
A few years ago ESPN spent a Sunday night of programming airing "The Natural." This special was complete with a "Baseball Tonight" retrospective about the film in which the host asked the network's gaggle of writers and former baseball players what the movie meant to them. For a moment, the panel of TV professionals was at a loss for words. They seemed completely dumbfounded as to why out of all the great baseball movies, the network had chosen this one to devote an entire evening. It's easy to understand their confusion.
"The Natural" is a pretty good movie. It's got some nice moments, some good performances and one of the best endings of any sports movie, but it's very long, the plot kind of meanders, and Berry Levinson gets in his own way more than he tells the story. Somehow, this has all added up to a film that has taken on a mythological quality, somewhat due to its bit of mysticism. The truly great films about the power of include "Bull Durham", "Field of Dreams", and even "The Sandlot
." "The Natural" is just an okay movie with a few cool scenes that's a bit too long.
When poker exploded into mainstream around 2003, suddenly "Rounders" began to be hailed as a classic. This is probably because Texas Hold 'Em is featured so prominently and accurately throughout the course of the movie, and every poker fanboy wishes they could play like Matt Damon's
character. The problem is, all of these poker scenes take place within the framework of a near trainwreck of a movie involving gangsters and an interminably boring law school subplot that nobody even bothers to mention when singing the praises of this film. The poker scenes are great and the lure of the game is handled perfectly. This movie overrated because fans only recall the latter and tend to ignore the former.
"Rudy" stinks. It is an awful, overly sentimental movie that totally distorted a nice inspirational story into Hollywood schmaltz. Very little from the movie is true (his teammates never threatened to back out of the game, it was actually the "evil" coach's idea to have him dress and play) yet it is treated as gospel from football fans, especially the annoying Golden Domers. "Rudy" is filled with more processed cheese than a supermarket danish, making it incredibly hard to root for the main character because you're so sick of him by the end of the film. There are plenty of great sports underdog movies ("Rocky" and "Hoosiers" to name a few) but this piece of swill has long been purported to stand among them. Most things that are overrated are actually good, but given too much credit. "Rudy" is a borderline Hallmark Hall of Fame film that gets treatment similar to an Oscar winner.
5. "The Set-Up
Most people have never heard of this movie, but it as an absolute knockout (no pun intended). "The Set-Up" is the story of mid-century boxing when it was controlled by the mob at all but the highest levels and nearly every fight was fixed. It takes place almost entirely in real time and follows an aging boxer whose manager arranges for his fighter to take a dive. The trouble is, he doesn't bother to tell the boxer who is so far past his prime that he just assumes he will go down. "The Set-Up" is an unrelenting marvel with brutal boxing scenes way ahead of its time. Not many people have heard of it, which is a shame because this is an example of sports movies at their best.
4. "Rocky III
The "Rocky" sequels are often dismissed as being so far inferior to the original that they are worthy of no merit at all. While this is true of four of the sequels, it certainly isn't for "Rocky III." The third movie in the series explores the trappings of fame and how Rocky's celebrity has tainted his fighter's mentality and eventually causes him to lose the title to a hungrier fighter, Clubber Lange. Sure it's a bit cheesy at times and does feature Mr. T
, but it has a great sports movie song, "Eye of the Tiger," and its journey beyond the underdog theme of the series actually made it a sequel worth making. Any movie than can say that already deserves more praise than it gets.
3. "Bend it Like Beckham
This movie had no chance to be anything but underrated from the day it was conceived. It's a sports movie about girls, it's not American, it's about soccer, and it has a title that is ripe for ridicule. Few have been able to see past these perceived obstacles, but those who have are treated to a nice coming-of-age story with plenty of laughs and very nice soccer scenes. "Beckham" is a perfect sports movie, demonstrating how the love of a certain game reverberates up and down racial lines and generations, effecting everyone with whom it interacts. Underrate that.
2. "Eight Men Out
This is another sports movie that few people have heard. How this became an afterthought so quickly is very puzzling at is a fantastic examination of the Black Sox Scandal that saw gamblers fixing the 1919 World Series. The film abounds with great performances from several prominent actors including John Cusack
and Christopher Lloyd
. This is a great movie for anybody looking for further insight into one of the darkest moments for America' Pastime.
1. "White Men Can't Jump
Ron Shelton is one of the finest sports movie auteurs. His resume includes "Bull Durham", "Cobb
", "Tin Cup
", and this overlooked classic about basketball hustlers. This movie has everything you could want in a sports movie: it relates the game to a myriad of separate themes, it has fully-formed characters that exist outside the realm of the court, and it is extremely entertaining to boot. "White Men" gets extra credit for its deeper examination of what it means to win and lose.
"White Men Can't Jump" works on so many levels: it's a comedy, a commentary on race relations, a buddy movie, and a relationship picture all set against the backdrop of street basketball. Despite doing so many different things well, this movie is often dismissed for its funny title. Perhaps Shelton was just trying to hustle the audience into seeing a challenging film that appeared to just be a comedy. Whatever the case, that title has caused this to be the most underrated sports film of all time.
Check back next Friday for the most underrated and overrated shows of the 1990s.
Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer