Coach's Corner

To hell with the critics! Remember the Titans is a great sports movie -- the best since Rocky.

The genre of film known as the sports movie is not a distinguished one. So for me to claim that I've just seen the best one ever is, admittedly, something of a backhanded compliment. People who seriously claim dreck like Gary Cooper's portrayal of Lou Gehrig in the 1942's The Pride of the Yankees or the maudlin The Babe Ruth Story (1948) as the best sports movies ever can only be -- I must assume -- trying to impress their chardonnay-sipping, court-side Laker friends with their appreciation of old Hollywood. Not that these movies didn't have their moments. The real Babe played himself in Pride, and the great Iron Horse's famous farewell speech to a packed Yankee Stadium is nicely done by Cooper. Anyone with a heart had a moist eye as the kids from the orphanage sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," while the dying Babe listens from the open window of his hospital room.

That said, these movies are sappy shit. If Ruth threw a ball like William Bendix, he would've ended up a Baltimore barber. Likewise, Lou's swing and Cooper's had as much in common as my left jab and Oscar de la Hoya's. In fact, these C-movies set a sad precedent which was to dog sports movies thereafter: the actors playing the athletes (e.g. Tony Perkins' frighteningly Tinkerbellish performance in The Jimmy Piersall Story) often appeared to have never picked up a bat, caught a pass, or thrown a punch.

Because boxing is, in reality, such a heartbreaking sport, with every horrid and heroic quality of humanity on display each time that bell rings, it has produced some excellent movies. Humphrey Bogart's last film, The Harder They Fall, was an outstanding, realistic look into the seamy side (is there any other?) of boxing circa 1950; it was as good as anything Bogart did. Jackie Gleason and Anthony Quinn's Requiem for a Heavyweight, a sad tale loosely based on the rise of Primo Carnera (with a brief cameo by an unknown fighter named Cassius Clay), is equally outstanding. And, of course, there's De Niro's Raging Bull.

Kevin Costner's obvious athleticism helps put Bull Durham and Field of Dreams on most best sports movies lists. Even in the ghastly For the Love of the Game (as bad as it gets), Costner looks like a pitcher. I've yet to meet a golfer who didn't enjoy the underrated Tin Cup, mainly because Costner is plausible as a golfer. It's simply impossible to pull off a decent sports movie if the actors prance about as if they're playing Pirates of Penzance in Central Park. I loved Tin Cup, but since a debate rages over whether golf is even a sport, I can't count it. I rate Bull Durham as my third-favorite sports movie.

Football, being a national obsession, ought to have done better by Hollywood. Knute Rockne, All-American, starring Ron Reagan as The Gipper, is maudlin C material. Most contemporary football movies, like Rudy or The Waterboy, are swill. And the worst modern sports movie ever is about football. Any Given Sunday makes Rudy look like a precious classic.

Until today, my favorite sports movie was Rocky. Stallone is passé these days, but Rocky, his 1976 breakout movie -- which he wrote in three days -- is a classic. Rocky Balboa is all about America. Rocky tugged at every emotion in the moviegoer's heart. The underdog of underdogs overcomes all and becomes champion. Stallone looked like a boxer, and the boxing scenes, though not very plausible, were brutally original. Rocky was so uplifting, people floated out of the old Americana Theatre in confusion, uncertain what to do first, fire left jabs or look for Kleenex. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. The Rocky theme music and the underdog are now so closely associated, they are one and the same. I remember the day I went, who I went with ... Don't mess with me on this. Rocky is a great sports movie.

In fact, on further review, it's still No.1. So today, I saw the second-best sports movie ever. Second isn't so bad. I didn't want to see Remember the Titans. Any Given Sunday had, like a rotten slab of mackerel, soured me on the sports movie. Kelly dragged me. You see, sports are all about emotion. If you're not crying at some point in a sports movie, it's no good. I fancy myself a macho, hard-bitten sort. I don't cry in the movie house. But Remember the Titans had me choking back tears constantly. In the end, I gave up. Denzel Washington is, as always, outstanding. Titans is, naturally, a morality play showing there's good in the worst of us. Unlike the cinematic pud-pounding of Oliver Stone, Titans' football scenes are graphic but realistic. The story is supposed to be true, but so was The Hurricane -- another excellent Washington performance -- though it was factual only in its barest outline. Still, it felt honest.

Titans, like Rocky, doesn't require the viewer to be a sports fan. I promise it will get you. It won't win the awards of Rocky. Knowing Washington's history, it probably won't even be nominated for any. To which I say, fuck 'em. This is a great sports movie.

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