The beauty of sports films is that they usually contain all of the makings of great drama. By their very nature, they're filled with conflict, always of the competitive type where an athlete or team battles one or more opponents to achieve victory. And they often possess the personal type where said participants overcome both external and internal obstacles to accomplish their goal. And with many being based on true events, they have that historical and sometimes cultural angle going for them in connecting with viewers.
That said, the very nature of such films is also their Achilles' heel. We know by default that most are going to feature such conflict where the underdog overcomes the odds and gets all of the way to the final minutes of whatever contest is being featured. While most will win, a few do lose, but most every such offering is a victim of its completely formulaic and often predictable nature.
Of course, sometimes the cast and crew manage to do enough interesting and winning things with the formula that the resultant film works, feels fresh and/or excels in the genre. Such was the case with 2005's "Cinderella Man" where Ron Howard, Russell Crowe and the rest took a tired sports genre (boxing) and delivered a terrific and completely engaging film.
As I sat down to watch "Glory Road," I wondered if those in front of and behind the camera could do the same for this period basketball flick. One of the things it had going for it was some impressive historical and cultural significance. Back in 1966, Texas Western University (now known as Texas-El Paso) did what had never been done before in Division 1, NCAA college basketball, and that was start an all-black squad in the championship game.
And they did it - natch -- as the underdog to the University of Kentucky team that was coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp (who had previously won four championships, although that was overshadowed by John Wooden's historic run with UCLA where he won nine out of ten years straight -- with the one omission occurring in 1966).
Now, black basketball players certainly weren't a novelty in the 60s -- after all, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game back in 1962 -- but racial tension was still strong in the country, especially in the South. And that very element constitutes a great deal of this adequately constructed sports drama that mixes such racial material into its otherwise predictable formula where the new coach arrives, shakes up the players' attitudes and behavior during practice, and then proceeds through the schedule with all of the usual conflict, etc.
Accordingly, it's going to remind viewers of similar offerings such as TV's old drama "The White Shadow" and more current fare such as "Remember the Titans." It doesn't back down from the ugly racial issues that were at play then (from both whites and blacks), but there really isn't anything we haven't seen or that hasn't been addressed before. Intolerance and hatred rear their ugly head, people get upset and the coach guides them through the thematic minefield.
As in most such sports films featuring teams rather than individual players, many of the characters come up feeling like gap fillers, but a few get some decent moments and material. That includes Derek Luke as the guy with the chip on his shoulder, Al Shearer as a player who has to grow some backbone and quick, and Damaine Radcliffe as a teammate whose bad ticker could be the end of his college career and then some.
It's somewhat refreshing that the filmmakers -- writers Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois and first-time feature film director James Gartner -- opted not to make the coach the sole focus of the film. The side effect of that, however, is that Josh Lucas can't do a lot that's original or interesting with him beyond the usual coaching material. Emily Deschanel plays the token wife who's present just to react to the racism getting personal, while Jon Voight is good behind a ton of makeup playing Rupp.
Tech credits are decent, although both the portrayal of some of the basketball games and related moves, as well as the way Gartner has shot the film give it too much of a contemporary feel for a film that's set in 1966. Maybe that's because the actual game wasn't the classic, last-shot nail-biter that's often found in such pictures and the filmmakers felt they needed to jazz things up to make it more "exciting." Whatever the case, such an approach feels incongruous with the period aspect.
If you've never seen a sports film and particularly a basketball-related one, this might seem like great stuff. Yet, notwithstanding the historical and cultural significance of the final big game, the film can't shake the ever-present "been there, seen that" before aura that most such pictures of this genre possess.