The Game of Their Lives is the second movie in the past three years with that title, and also the second about a major soccer upset during the World Cup. The first was a documentary about the North Korean team of 1966; while it was fascinating, it has yet to find a distributor in the U.S., possibly because the notion of depicting patriotic North Koreans as heroes is not exactly in vogue right now. The new Game of Their Lives focuses on Americans and opens this week; among those who realize that there's more than one game called "football" in the world, it should be a major crowd-pleaser.
Most pleased will be proud St. Louisans: Our city gets name-dropped approximately once a minute, as most of the 1950 U.S. World Cup team consisted of Italian-Americans from the Hill. (That none of the major actors is Italian or from St. Louis is a minor detail -- it's impressive enough that the movie was actually shot in St. Louis and Brazil, rather than on some Canadian soundstage.) Their story begins, unnecessarily, in the present day, with hilariously named reporter Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart) recalling the great triumph he witnessed, though he turns out to have been a peripheral character who could not possibly have seen all the events he's about to relate. The erstwhile Captain Picard's attempt at an American accent is a more daunting challenge than the one faced by the U.S. team (Robert Duvall's Scottish accent in the U.K. soccer flick A Shot at Glory easily trumps Stewart's similar transatlantic effort), but it is amusing. McSkimming recalls the days when he was younger and played by another actor, Terry McKinney, who looks nothing like Stewart but is just slightly less bald. (He's also older-looking than he should be -- at the film's end, we see the surviving players in the present day, and all look much older than Stewart, yet in the past, McKinney appears closer to middle age than they do.)
For the working-class joes of the Hill, there are a few obstacles to conquer before making the team. Frank Borghi (Gerard Butler, unrecognizable from his star turn in The Phantom of the Opera) has to stand up to his mother's desire to enroll him in embalming school (the real Borghi has since returned to the funeral business, where he has served for over 25 years now). Gino Pariani (Louis Mandylor) initially backs out because he's scheduled to get married during the cup matches, but his family-to-be turns out to be very understanding. And when the elitist athletes already signed to the U.S. team -- among them Walter Bahr (Wes Bentley) -- use big words like "Neanderthal," well, you know the simple men are gonna have to learn them thar college boys a thing or two.
There's also the specter of racism, which almost prevents the multitalented Haitian Joe Gaetjens (Jimmy Jean-Louis) from joining the team. But viewed through the perspective of 21st-century filmmakers, the issue turns out to be not his skin color but his pagan religious beliefs, about which he has an in-depth, awareness-raising discussion during a turbulent plane ride. The only ethnic slurs uttered in the movie are "Dago" and "Kraut" -- hard to believe that the n-word never came up. Rather, the feeling one gets is that those who were freaked out by Gaetjens simply thought he was weird for wearing sacred beads and doing cartwheels. Sure.
Louis Mandylor's brother Costas plays teammate Charlie "Gloves" Columbo, which is a little weird -- they share a strong resemblance, yet are playing characters who are not related. To the casual viewer who isn't aware of the real players, this does create some confusion in keeping everybody straight.
There's nothing unpredictable at all about The Game of Their Lives, especially since the match in question against England is firmly on the record, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Most sports movies -- even those based on fictitious athletes -- have a predictable ending anyway. The writer-director combo of Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh know this well, having already made Hoosiers and Rudy together. The notes are expertly hit, and because it's an international story, they also tug at the patriotic heartstrings. Best of all, the movie doesn't fall into the trap that other recent soccer movies have: Both Mean Machine and Bend It Like Beckham used all kinds of choppy editing tricks to "speed up" all the in-game footage, possibly to camouflage the actors' relative inability. Perhaps because it's a period film, no such postmodern trickery is used here -- excitement is generated strictly by the actual choreography and the enthusiastic commentary of an English announcer (Tim Vickery).