The 7 Rules Every Sports Movie Lives By
So you want to make a sports movie. Well, let’s face it, making one isn’t the most difficult task in the world. Just ask Disney. All you need is a sport, and really, any sport will do, throw in a little dancing, a montage (note: these can be, and often are, combined), an inspirational speech and ending, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide smash hit film on your hands. Again, ask Disney. But if you need any more ideas on how to shape your new sports movie, well, we’ve got a few guidelines for you to follow…
Both created and perfected by the Rocky series, the wet blanket girlfriend, wife or other random family member is the one character who, no matter how inspirational your hero is, will never, ever (and let us stress, ever) believe in. Adrian Balboa repeatedly told Rocky he couldn’t win. And hey, look what happened to her for having so little faith: she was killed off prior to the sixth movie. That’ll show her!
But the Rocky films aren’t the only ones who feature the wet blanket. No, every movie has to have a wet blanket of some sort. This is the character who tries with all her (or his, we believe in equity) might to crush the dreams or our heroes. Take every single fringe character in Rudy, for instance. Sure, you could point to Rudy’s brother and father as the two biggest wet blankets, throwing dirt on Rudy’s competitive fire at every opportunity, but seriously: every single character not named Rudy, Rudy’s friend who died in a freak accident, Charles Dutton or Jon Favreau told Rudy throughout the film that he basically sucked at life. Knowing what we know about the real life Rudy, we’re inclined to agree.
Other examples of wet blankets include Myra Fleener from Hoosiers (and with a name like that, how could she be anything but a buzzkill?) and Amy Smart’s character in Varsity Blues. Of course, if we were in her place and had a chance to discourage James Van Der Beek, we’d probably take that opportunity too.
You can be the worst team in the world. You can lose every single game by a ridiculous margin. Hell, you could be the Detroit Lions. Okay, that might be a little harsh. In any event, there’s one sure fire way to turn your season around: come up with elaborate dance routine (as a team!) or get into a giant bar room brawl with your nemeses (again, as a team!). Nothing says team building like line dancing and drop kicks, after all.
If sports movies have taught us anything, it’s that even the worst of the worst can choreograph a nice little dance routine and/or fight and get arrested, and everything will work out okay in the end. Just ask the guys from Necessary Roughness, who brawled with the “number one team in Texas” and came together better than ever in the aftermath. Maybe you could take a note from the team in Remember the Titans, who learned that the surest way to intimidate an opponent is to dance your way onto the field.
But if you really want to take a lesson here, look no further than the fine folks in The Replacements (hey, there’s Favreau again!), who pulled off quite the coup de grace by not just dancing or fighting, but doing both, in the same night! After first imitating the guys from Necessary Roughness with their bar brawl, the Replacements found themselves in the slammer, where they danced their way into the heart of Gene Hackman and victories. The bottom line in all of this, though, is that if you see the Lions in the Detroit police blotter for getting into a collective fight, put all of your money on them to cover the spread on Sunday.
If there’s anything people love more than an underdog, it’s an underdog getting his second (or, even better, last) chance. This holds true in sports, where we’ve got guys like Kurt Warner going from bagging groceries to tossing touchdowns, Ricky Williams bouncing back from a purple haze, and Terrell Owens, well, being a prick in every city he enters. Okay, so not all second, third, fourth and fifth chance athletes are success stories.
Either way, sports movies are pretty much the same way. We love our lovable losers who are getting their second, probably final shot at glory. Look at Shane Falco in The Replacements, or Jake Taylor in Major League, or Norman Dale in Hoosiers. If you’re a disgraced former player or coach, a has been, or a never was who didn’t get his chance to shine in the first place (like Paul Blake in Necessary Roughness), chances are we’re going to be rooting our asses off for you to succeed.
And if anyone understands this, it’s got to be Gene Hackman, who has become the master of playing the washed up and/or disgraced coach getting his one last shot. He perfected the role with Hoosiers, where he played a guy who returned to coaching after having been suspended for punching a player and had to pull off an awkward kiss with Barbara Hershey as the aforementioned Myra Fleener and wound up taking the Hickory Huskers to a state title. And then he returned to a similar role in The Replacements, playing a respected actor phoning in a performance in a subpar sports movie. Needless to say, he nailed it.
It can’t be enough to just face opposition from the outside; your hero needs to face opposition from within as well. That’s where the teammate who is irrationally bitter and hateful toward your hero comes in. It’s his job to completely loathe your hero with all of his might, for no discernable reason whatsoever.
One of the most famous examples is probably the formerly skinny Vince Vaughn in Rudy, who pulled off the feat of being 6’6” and still playing a halfback while also giving little Rudy crap at every turn. It might also be the only instance, real or fictitious, in which someone has ever accused a walk-on athlete of being a show off. Because nothing says show off like slaving away in a thankless and unrecognized role on a sports team and having to pay your own way to do it, all while getting your ass stomped by far superior athletes for hours a day.
A more recent example would be the irrationally racist guy in The Express, who only learned to appreciate Ernie Davis after they started winning, or the irrationally racist guy in Remember the Titans, who just decided he was better at being a douchebag and stuck with that throughout the movie. Additionally, Major League features a pair of irrationally hate filled teammates in Eddie Harris and Roger Dorn, who despised Pedro Cerano and Rick Vaughn for…well, reasons. What reasons? We’re not sure, but that’s what we’re going to go with for now. Yup, nice and general. Remember, that’s all you need to sell this part of your script!
Now, maybe montages don’t cure literally all ills, but until someone slaps together a cancer montage set to peppy 1960’s music we just won’t know for sure, will we? Anyway, you can’t make a sports movie without an inspirational montage, and you can’t make a sports montage without the team 1) coming together, 2) the underdog attaining greatness, or 3) Joe Esposito proving once and for all how badass a songwriter he is. Seriously, he’s the best…around!
Once again, the Rocky movies perfected the inspirational sports movie montage, but it’s a practice that has become standard in every…single…sports movie…since. Seriously, try to think of a sports movie that didn’t contain at least one montage. Can you think of one? Didn’t think so. Karate Kid, Hoosiers, Major League, they all contain sweet montages showing our heroes progressing quite nicely, getting ready for the big game/coming together as a team/kicking bad guys in the face.
Hell, sports montages have become so cliché (in a good way!) and prevalent that the South Park guys not only parodied them in one famous episode, but they stole their own montage idea and stuck it in Team America just to hammer the point home. The basic point here is that if you’re ever stuck with the team or hero in your movie sucking ass for extended periods, just throw in a montage and by the end, you can have them beat the freaking New York Yankees even if they’re a Pee Wee football team and no one will think twice about it. “Well, the Yankees are good, but those little football players did have a bitchin’ montage…”
The corollary to this one is that without fail, your hero must have a nemesis who is the epitome of evil. Seriously, this nemesis must have absolutely no redeeming traits. After all, who wants to root against a sports movie villain who spends his spare time reading to blind goldfish?
Of course, the gold standard in this category is, was, and will always remain Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, who decided early on he hated Daniel LaRusso (and we can’t say we really blame him) and made it his goal in life to destroy Daniel’s pride or, short of that, his life. Literally, by killing him, or at least trying to on several occasions.
But we’re talking about that moment at the end of your sports movie when the hero has miraculously (and usually unrealistically) defeated his nemesis, the incarnation of evil. At that moment, for instance in Karate Kid, when the villain’s face has been broken, he suddenly has a new found respect for the guy who broke his nose in about four places. Breaking Away is another good example, and in a slightly different version (the hero nearly killing himself to earn respect), so is Cool Runnings. But the one thing to remember is that the absolute best way to show that your nefarious villain has had a change of heart is to have him slow clap. Because seriously, no one who is still a jerkoff would ever try to pull off the slow clap.
Who the hell wants to see a football team win by three touchdowns? Who wants to see Rocky win by second round TKO? No one, that’s who. It’s the same reason why it’s only slightly fun to beat a 10 year old at basketball. There’s no suspense. The best sports to watch are the baseball games that are decided with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the football games won with a Hail Mary, and the Wii bowling games where you pick up a spare in the final frame and then immediately rub it in your spouse’s face. We should point out that only that last scenario will lead to zero sex.
So despite the fact that, for example, Remember the Titans was based on a true story in which the real Titans stomped their way to a title, Disney decided it’d be more cinematic to have them win on an absurd and totally unbelievable 70 yard reverse, with the star quarterback throwing about a dozen blocks on the way to the endzone. It’s also the reason why, in Rocky II, Rocky and Apollo punchicize each other to the point where the first one who can actually stand up wins.
It should be noted that, in most cases, this works best of you put that insane final dramatic play in slow motion. After all, we as an audience want to savor every second of our hero and/or team snagging victory out of the arms of the villainous (and probably better) opposing team. Because at the end of the day, we all think of ourselves as underdogs, and we’d like nothing more than to see the people around us have their dreams shattered. Which reminds us: inspiration really comes second to vengeance which is disguised as inspiration. Victory is sweet, but it’s even sweeter when you can also take some bully’s pride at the same time. Just ask Daniel LaRusso.