Everyone loves a good underdog story, perhaps because most of us feel like the underdog in the story of our own lives. Sometimes, it feels like the whole world is just out to get you, and we find easy comfort in relating to characters going through similar circumstances and rising above the ceiling others have tried forcing on them. We can find this story in many areas of life, but as far is film is concerned, sports dramas have the monopoly. Not only do we have endless supply of underdog stories in real world sports every year, the powers that be in Hollywood have decided that, for the most part, our yearly dose in real life isn’t enough.
Those uplifting stories of unexpected triumph are fine, but the formula wears thin after a while. Fortunately, we don’t have to always be subjected to relentlessly clichéd stories of struggle, perseverance and victory. These 15 features, for example, teach us that a different sort of captivating sports story does exist, and in quite a few cases, that feel-good warmth can still come along for the ride. These are The 15 Least Inspirational Sports Movies Of All Time.
15 Southpaw (2015)
Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw may end with a moment of triumph, and its plot may do nothing but build up to that moment, but the context hardly makes it reason for celebration. Boxing, among other physical sports, has long been at the forefront for discussions regarding concussions and other sports-related injuries that just may lead to long-term negative effects, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and those discussions make their presence known during Southpaw’s first act.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope, in spite of his glorious undefeated record, is already a physical wreck by the time his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) convinces him to retire while he’s still on top. Even though he may overcome his abuse of alcohol and drugs after Maureen’s death, Billy’s physical condition is still highly questionable, yet he pursues retaining his title. And while he may be successful in his quest of redemption, the lack of resolution with regards to his physical health is quite unsettling.
14 Goon (2012)
There’s something completely antithetical to the whole idea of sports underdog stories by basing one around a character whose only job is to fight people. Obviously, that doesn’t include boxing, because that’s the sport’s very nature. With regards to ice hockey, however, many hockey fans – this writer included – may argue that fighting is actually fundamental to the game and not just a cheap gimmick, marketing strategy for professional clubs or an excuse for alpha males to assert their dominance, the game is physical enough that it doesn’t really require goon culture.
Meet Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott), whose entire job on the ice is to rough people up and act as a spark plug to a struggling team in the minors. As far as the plot is concerned, it is a familiar and relatively by the numbers as an underdog story, but the brutality of Doug ‘The Thug"’s fighting lends itself to a slight subversion of the typical underdog story, in a sense. These characters are supposed to be good-natured – which Doug is – but the hard-nosed brawls possess a simultaneous ugliness and beauty so you’re not quite sure if you should feel motivated or horrified.
13 The Longest Yard (1974)
A sports comedy about a band of prisoners playing a football game against the guards who control them has the potential to be motivational, and though The Longest Yard may attempt to be, it isn’t, but the consistency of the laughs keep the film successfully afloat. The filmmakers may trump up the opposition these prisoners face between the racial harassment of one black inmate and the death of Caretaker, but even after Paul Crewe’s (Burt Reynolds) admission of guilt, he still isn’t the most likeable character in spite of Reynolds’s charisma.
But the film is plenty funny, and that can be seen in its various cast of characters. Reynolds is as reliable as ever, but his supporting cast is full of worthy standouts, as well. Caretaker (James Hampton), for instance, is a more than worthy number two man, complementing Reynolds’s comedy of hubris. In other words, Adam Sandler and crew – pun intended – couldn’t replicate the same magic in 2005.
12 Win Win (2011)
Plenty of people may agree with the sentiment that the best zombie films are those that focus on the characters and their relationships rather than the zombies themselves. Likewise, we seem to find that the best sports films don’t focus on the accomplishments made by individuals or teams. Tom McCarthy’s Win Win follows that mantra much like many of the other films on this list, and it’s quite interesting considering its protagonist is not the sports star, but the person behind the scenes manufacturing him.
Based upon his action in the film’s opening act, attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) isn’t the kind of character an average audience might feel comfortable rooting for. And yet, considering the cast around him and that he’s the protagonist, one realizes that most everyone else is as flawed as he is and there’s even worse still to come. Ultimately, the film is less about one troubled teen’s stellar wrestling accomplishments and more about his caretaker’s slow realization that he needs to confront and be open about his own troubles.
11 Bull Durham (1988)
As far as rom-coms and sports movies go, Bull Durham certainly has a happy ending for the former, whereas the latter is more in question and depends on the viewer. Either way, once again, we have a film that doesn’t take any conventional routes – or at least fewer – in getting there. Somehow it’s hard to feel uplifted by a baseball film featuring Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins bickering with each other about things like why ‘strikeouts are fascist’ and why Robbins’s Nuke is wasting his talents.
Between Costner and Robbins’ character dynamic and both characters’ varied romantic involvement with free spirit Annie (Susan Sarandon), Bull Durham is one of those sports films more preoccupied with emphasizing the various ridiculous sports personas for comedic effect. It’s easy to poke fun at Robbins’s Nuke for his egotistical, boneheaded jock personality, and even Costner’s Crash as a jaded, grizzled minor league veteran isn’t completely likeable.
10 White Men Can't Jump (1992)
Look, sports comedies can be inspirational as well as funny; one could make a case for a film like Major League. But here, we find another example of a sports comedy that just isn’t. Featuring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, White Men Can’t Jump, may be about a streetball hustling duo and their various swindles, and even confronts issues of perception of race, but the film isn’t always as happy-go-lucky as it initially starts out.
Aside from the duo’s streetball scams and their success in streetball tournaments, White Men Can’t Jump, arguably, is really about struggling people in search of their own fading dream. Snipes’s Sidney is trying give his family a better life, and as a former college basketball player, Harrelson’s Billy is trying to prove his worth amongst the many who discount him, all the while evading mobsters with his girlfriend (Rosie Perez). The film may end with Sidney and Billy together as friends, but as we see with Billy, not everybody wins, and sometimes you’re the reason for your own downfall.
9 Any Given Sunday (1999)
Like Goon, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday may be a controversial inclusion, especially when considering Coach Tony D’Amato’s (Al Pacino) incredible pre-game speech that would make anyone want to run through a brick wall if it meant achieving what they’ve worked so hard get. But as a whole, Stone’s film hardly feels like a story of genuine triumph.
Any Given Sunday may occupy the realm of professional football for two and a half hours, but damned if its plot is about the success and frequent troubles surrounding the fictional Miami Sharks on the field. Instead, Stone and John Logan’s script is more intent on critiquing business ethics in professional sports, thanks to Cameron Diaz’s turn as Miami Sharks owner and general manager Christina Pagniacci, and the narcissism and modern commercialization of sports super-stardom concerning ‘Steamin’ Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx). Throughout most of the film, its tone is less than enthusiastic depicting the harsh realities of sports business and the effects of the media, but in spite of the Sharks’ joy at the finale, the final scene is one giant middle finger to expectations of inspirational sports cinema.
8 The Damned United (2009)
Considering where Brian Clough would take struggling provincial club Nottingham Forest in the late 70s, maybe fans of Leeds United – the ones who were around back then – would feel salty about his incredibly short, if somewhat controversial tenure? It’s a remarkable story, in and of itself: Brian Clough, manager of Leeds United for a whopping 44 days.
Tom Hooper’s directorial debut The Damned United partially covers the events of Clough’s (Michael Sheen) failed appointment, but that’s not what the film is really about. In reality, the film is a drama about two friends whose relationship deteriorates, only for the pieces to be picked up by the end. In this case, the two friends are Clough and Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who shared a long time partnership as manager and assistant manager, respectively, at a few different clubs – Leeds United was not one of them. The film moves back and forth between their friendship’s decline and Clough’s time in Leeds until his ultimate sacking. It certainly isn’t your conventional sports drama route to a happy ending, but it gets you there.
7 Slap Shot (1977)
Slap Shot is a fun film, but in a sense a weird film, as well. It makes a complete mockery of the same über-masculine goon culture presented in Goon – very timely as the film’s premiere was only two years after the famed Broad Street Bullies of the Philadelphia Flyers won their second straight NHL crown – and yet it still strangely reveres the same violence it means to skewer.
All the same, there is literally nothing about Slap Shot that would, or should, inspire anyone, and that’s fine because it’s all in good fun. Additionally, very subtly, the film displays its own sardonic wit with regards to formulaic sports film plot progression as the players demonstrate their disregard for the team’s ownership’s wishes as they scrap their plans to change their deviant ways and play ‘old-time hockey’ for the final. It’s a defiant lack of character evolution that tells stereotypical triumphant conclusions to stick it, which is rather appropriate for a movie about boneheaded hockey violence and its colorful characters. The Hanson trio are forever hockey cult figures and almost any hockey fan’s favorite goons.
6 Friday Night Lights (2004)
We all know that you don’t need a victorious ending to be properly inspirational; Rocky taught us that way back in ’76, and its why in the sequel, Apollo Creed proclaims, “I won, but I didn’t beat him.” Like Rocky, Friday Night Lights doesn’t feature victorious protagonists, but unlike the former film, director Peter Berg takes his sweet time in emphasizing the agony of defeat. Coach Gaines’s (Billy Bob Thornton) speech about perfection having nothing to do with winning is all well and good, until you see how crushed these teenagers are.
In many ways, Friday Night Lights is the high school version of Any Given Sunday; highlighting and heightening the often-cruel realities associated with playing football, especially in a state like Texas, where high school football, mostly for smaller communities, is as important as college football or the NFL. But unlike Stone, Berg isn’t here to critique anything, but will shine a light on it. Between Tim McGraw’s abusive Charles Billingsly and ‘Boobie’ Miles’s tragic ACL tear, nothing comes out pretty in Berg’s exposé.
5 Rollerball (1975)
Just in case you liked your sports films mixed with dystopian science fiction, Rollerball has got you covered. James Caan stars as Jonathan E., the star athlete of the titular, futuristic sport in a world where the game is used as a substitute for warfare and corporations have taken the place of countries. To stunt his growth in stardom, the Energy Corporation tries to persuade Jonathan to retire, but when he refuses, his Houston team’s successive games become more lethal as the opposing players are directed to kill Jonathan.
Now, the chairman of the Energy Corporation, played by John Houseman, admits that the game was created to stifle individualism, which is notable on two different fronts. First of all, professional sports have always been known for their celebration of gifted, pre-packaged media idols. Secondly, it serves into the film’s political subtext about the dangers of communism, which are further emphasized by one scene when the Houston players drown out one coach’s instructions with a monolithic ‘Houston’ chant. And even though, at the end, the Houston faithful cheer Jonathan’s name as he scores the winning goal, the occasion is anything but cheerful as he is the only player left alive.
4 Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Million Dollar Baby is a brilliant act of stone-cold deception, because it’s built as though it might be an uplifting story until its climax. With Hilary Swank as the plucky fighter and director Clint Eastwood as the cynical former boxing trainer, its admittedly formulaic character dynamic had the potential to be convincing thanks to fantastic writing, powerful performances and very well photographed fight scenes. But unless you were previously familiar with the story, the plot takes a hard left turn that makes sense for the development of its characters, but sucks the positivity out of the air, trading it for a tear-jerking finale.
But in this case, where there isn’t a motivational ending, there is certainly a satisfying one. In her final deathbed request to Frankie (Eastwood), Maggie (Swank) says that she fought to come into the world, but given the fighting she’s done in and outside of the ring, she’s reached a point where she’d rather have someone tell her it’s okay to stop. It’s an emotional gut punch that’s fulfilling, if not full of hope.
3 The Wrestler (2008)
A professional wrestler past his prime looking to catapult himself back into his days of former glory by facing off against one of his more famed opponents for a legendary rematch. The plot of The Wrestler may seem familiar, but its progression is much less conventional thanks to Robert Siegel’s script and Darren Aronofsky’s direction. In between Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson’s (Mickey Rourke) appearances at local shows, The Wrestler emphasizes the mundanities of his present life; even his workout sessions and less than stellar wrestling gigs are far from glamorous.
On top of that, he’s sabotaged the relationships he’s had with everyone he loves, including the one he tries to save with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and he blatantly ignores advice from his doctor that could save his life. Thanks to a strong performance from Rourke, Randy’s final bout is emotionally powerful, especially in its final shots. But like Southpaw, the fact that his health lacks resolution is disturbing, and in this case, depressing.
2 Foxcatcher (2014)
What the makeup team did for Steve Carell in Foxcatcher is nothing short of magnificent. From an actor’s perspective, playing an historical figure is surely easier to do the more you like him or her. In that case, Carell becomes John E. du Pont to point of being unrecognizable. And by virtue of this, he becomes everything that overcame du Pont up to his murder of Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) – paranoia and jealousy, for one.
As if murder wasn’t enough to take away any ounce of an uplifting tone, there comes Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. The predatory nature with which du Pont steals any shred of self-esteem from Schultz would make any viewer uneasy, especially considering Mark already felt overwhelmed living in his brother’s shadow. Aside from characters, the film’s look and style is devoid of life. The de-saturated visual tone aids director Bennett Miller’s subtle camerawork, creating a series of portraiture steeped in primal emotion.
1 Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was a character study featuring a man whose self-prescribed alienation from society had made him susceptible to a major downfall. While similar things could be said about Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s next character study Raging Bull, there’s still at least some indication that he can surpass his own flaws, become a boxing champion and better himself as a husband and human being. Instead, much like Travis Bickle, La Motta’s personal and athletic decline leads him into a deep, depressing rabbit hole.
In fact, while Bickle’s free-fall toward shooting up a pimp and his bodyguards is fascinating to watch, Scorsese and company makes Raging Bull a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Its depiction of a star athlete’s downfall is as intimate as the close-up shots in one of Jake’s fights, and the black and white cinematography further emphasizes the grit and ugliness. And thanks to some commitment on the part of Robert De Niro in the lead, he is completely unrecognizable by the end.
Are there any we missed? Let us know in the comments!