Everyone has a favorite sports movie. It’s often the usual suspects: Hoosiers, Friday Night Lights, Rocky, Bull Durham, Rudy, Raging Bull, Caddyshack, Major League, Hoop Dreams, Dodgeball, etc.
But what about the sports films that don’t receive enough love? Here are some you might have missed. With the sports calendar thinning out as we move toward summer, check them out if you can.
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 92%, Audience: 80%
Quote: “Welcome to America, son.”
Coming to America isn’t easy when you’re an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language and isn’t familiar with the culture. Miguel Santos, nicknamed Sugar, is a Dominican Republic pitching prospect who leaves his poor home to pursue his dream of big league baseball. First, he must start in the minors in Iowa.
The culture shock brings its own challenges. Trying to fit in is difficult when even ordering off a menu is a hurdle. Everyday, he goes to the same restaurant and asks for “French Toast” because it’s the only thing he knows how to order in English.
Santos has some success on the mound, but has difficulty off the field. This movie depicts a side of baseball than isn’t talked about enough.
9. Fast Break
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: n/a, Audience: 55%
Quote: “He’s ethnic, Enid. Enid has never met an ethnic before.”
If you’re easily offended, this probably isn’t the movie for you. However, if you appreciate a dated, politically incorrect, whimsical farce, get ready. The tagline from the goofball film is all you need to know: “Gabe Kaplan’s having a ball! His dream team’s got a preacher, a jailbird, a pool shark, a muscleman. And the best guy on his team is a girl.”
Kaplan lands a job as a coach at an obscure Nevada college. The school president is eager to win and wants to use sports to raise the university’s profile. So he hires Kaplan to assemble a ragtag group of players, including a pool hustler played Bernard King (?!).
Fast Break is a movie from a different time. Much like Blazing Saddles, this film would never be made today.
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 54% critics, Audience: 77%.
Quote: “A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can. But a good con-man — he doesn’t have to leave until he wants to.”
Conman Gabriel Caine (James Woods), freshly out of prison, makes a wager. He bets wealthy Diggstown resident John Gillon (Bruce Dern) that 48-year-old boxer Honey Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett, Jr) can defeat 10 of the town’s boxers in a single day. Of course, it’s a hustle and both Caine and Gillon are trying to pull a fast one on the other.
What makes Diggstown work is that the movie is thoroughly entertaining. One of the movie’s funniest moments occurs when Caine tries to inspire Palmer by telling him one of his foes is “bigger than you are. He’s tougher. He’s faster. He’s younger than you are. He hasn’t fought 22 rounds today, but remember this… you are black.”
Palmer’s reply: “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
7. Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: n/a, Audience: 94%
Quote: “These courts have produced some of the finest players in the world and not one of them can hold a candle to you.”
This is a cautionary true story about unfulfilled potential. Chances are you’ve never heard of Earl Manigault, but he was a New York City basketball legend. The guard was famous for his vertical leap and passing, and was a high school star as luminous as his NYC contemporary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then named Lew Alcindor).
While Abdul-Jabbar went on to become a Hall of Famer, Manigault’s drug addiction derailed his basketball career. He was kicked out of high school for smoking marijuana and later became hooked on heroin.
This HBO movie stars Don Cheadle in one of his first-ever major roles. He adroitly navigates through the many stages of Manigault’s life. Cheadle is one of the top American actors to never have won an Oscar.
6. Red Army
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 97%, Audience: 86%.
Quote: “Cowards don’t play hockey.”
Everyone knows about the “Miracle on Ice,” but what about the team on the losing side? Red Army is an in-depth documentary about the Soviet Union’s national hockey team, its beginnings, its shocking loss in the 1980 Olympic Games to the U.S., and its rise to become a dominant world power.
The Red Army wasn’t just about hockey. It was a political tool used by the Russians to push Soviet propaganda and Communism. Russia dedicated tremendous resources to hockey, recruiting its best athletes to play the sport and using varied techniques to teach the game (borrowing skills from ballet, juggling, chess, etc.).
This documentary takes you inside the inner working of the system: its victories, failures and the players caught in the Cold War of ideologies.
5. The Fortune Cookie
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 95%, Audience: 81%
Quote: “You can fool all of the people some of the time. You can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Football players running into people along the sidelines isn’t uncommon. But what if someone filed a critical injury lawsuit? What if the hurt party (Jack Lemmon) had a brother-in-law who was an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed “Whiplash Willie” (Walter Matthau)?
Lemmon and Matthau and appeared in 10 movies together. This is the first and one of the funniest, resulting in Matthau winning his only Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Lemmon plays CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle, who gets hurt while working a Cleveland Browns game when star player Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson runs into him. Hinkle’s injuries are minor, but Whiplash Willie Gingrich convinces Hinkle to pretend to be wheelchair-bound. Jackson, plagued by guilt, struggles on the field, while Hinkle starts to feel remorse over this sham.
4. Win Win
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 94%, Audience: 85%
Quote: “We have kids, Mike. I’m not taking any chances with Eminem down there.”
Desperation can lead good people to making poor decisions. Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is an attorney with a floundering law practice who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach. All this stress leads him to making an unethical and probably illegal choice with unexpected results.
His plan to improve his financial situation gets thrown for a loop when the troubled teenage grandson of a client shows up. The kid also just happens to be an all-state wrestler. Suddenly, not only is he making money, but his once-lousy team has a star athlete. Life is good for a while, until the teen’s mother comes to town, ruins the plan, and Flaherty is forced to confront the big lie he has told.
This dramedy is a well put-together story with well thought-out characters.
3. Long Gone
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: n/a, Audience: n/a
Quote: “Baseball ain’t nothing but a little boy’s game played on some grass. It shouldn’t matter who the pitcher’s daddy is or how much money he makes. It shouldn’t matter what color his skin is. You just go out there with a ball in your hands, hit the ball and run like hell.”
Long Gone is a HBO film which came out a year before Bull Durham, and the two share commonalities: baseball, a grizzled veteran, a hotshot rookie and a sexy siren. But there’s a profound wistfulness that sets it apart.
Cecil “Stud” Cantrell (William Petersen) could have been somebody. He had a chance to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, but joined the Marines after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and got hurt. Now he’s a manager/ player for a nondescript Southern minor league team in the 1950s. He’s the kind of guy willing to get punched in the face so that the opposing pitcher hurts his hand.
Cantrell’s fortunes change, thanks to the rookie and an African American catcher who pretends to be Venezuelan to avoid Jim Crow racism. But their chance to win the pennant is threatened by a Faustian deal.
2. The Damned United
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 93%, Audience: 85%
Quote: “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country. But I’m in the top one.”
Sheer arrogance led to one of the greatest failures in English soccer history: Brian Clough’s infamous 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United in 1974. It makes for a terrific film and fascinating character study.
You never want to be the guy who replaces The Guy. You especially don’t want to be the guy who replaces The Guy while insulting The Guy and his players. Clough (Michael Sheen) learned that lesson the hard way.
Imagine Rex Ryan taking over the New England Patriots, immediately calling Bill Belichick and Tom Brady cheaters and insisting he knew a better way to win. That’s essentially what Clough did with predictably disastrous results. Clough’s players tuned him out, the team languished and he was fired.
The movie is part fact, part fiction and totally compelling.
1. Without Limits
Rotten Tomatoes: Critics: 79%, Audience: 91%
Quote: “I’d like to work it out so that at the end, it’s a pure guts race. If it is, I’m the only one who can win it.”
Without Limits doesn’t have a happy ending, but still manages to be inspirational. This isn’t a Hollywood celebration about overcoming impossible odds. It has depth and nuance. Steve “Pre” Prefontaine was a force of nature and cultural icon within the tight-knit running community.
Prefontaine’s bravado and domination made him a 1970s rock star, and he remains arguably the most popular athlete the University of Oregon has ever produced. This Tom Cruise-produced movie, co-written by one of Prefontaine’s friends and fellow Oregon runner (Kenny Moore), feels authentic.
The scenes between legendary Oregon track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland, and Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) are not clichéd. They ring true as two passionate men struggle to understand one another. This is one of the greatest sports movies ever made. Don’t miss it.