Game of Their Lives screenwriter Angelo Pizzo dubs soccer "the world's most democratic sport" in this surprisingly satisfying retelling of the biggest upset in World Cup history, if not the entire history of the sport. Their employment of Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper in the genre classic Hoosiers excepted, Pizzo and his directing partner, David Anspaugh, could easily be considered the world's most democratic filmmakers; they allow previously underutilized actors -- and, in this instance, locales -- to carry their films.
To be sure, these films are ensembles, but damned if Scotsman Gerard Butler doesn't emit all the assured, quiet restraint of his Oscar-nominated doppelganger, Clive Owen, in his pivotal role as heroic St. Louis-bred goalie and erstwhile war hero Frank Borghi. Words are secondary to Butler's film-anchoring performance, which is fitting in a movie where the most compelling action takes place below the actors' knees.
For roughly a third of the movie, when the camera does pan up, what the audience sees is St. Louis. Specifically, the Hill, cast as a Midwestern version of Little Italy. That the filmmakers were required to make very few alterations to the St. Louis of the early 2000s in order to capture the look and feel of 1950s St. Louis has been slyly derided in a handful of on-location accounts of the creative process (see Matthew Everett's "Quiet on the Set!" in the July 16, 2003, issue of Riverfront Times) -- a supposed snarl at our town's backwater tendencies. There's another way of looking at this phenomenon, however: To borrow a phrase from the U.S. head coach's locker-room speech at halftime, the utilization of St. Louis as a virtually unfettered backdrop for this film is testament to the "character and stamina" of the city's residential housing stock, churches and public spaces.
Ultimately, the yeomanlike Hill is eclipsed by the film's electric rendering of Brazil (the site of the climactic showdown), where the players -- convinced that they're about to get their asses handed to them by the Brits (which is exactly what happened in a pre-Cup tune-up in New York City) -- get hammered by a saucy onslaught of caipirinhas, Brazil's rummy signature cocktail.
For fans who seek the best of both these worlds (which is to say, distilled South American sugar cane and a view of St. Lou's finest brick architecture), a post-screening sojourn on the patio of Yemanja Brasil in Benton Park should strike the perfect balance.