For all the range he’s displayed in the past several years, Mark Wahlberg never seems so much in his element as when there’s a ’70s mane on his head and a classic-rock soundtrack in the background. In “Invincible,” Wahlberg’s role as the bartender-turned-NFL star Vince Papale tempts a superficial comparison with Dirk Diggler, the busboy-turned-adult film star from “Boogie Nights.” But aside from shaggy hair and great music, there’s little comparison to be made.
In truth, “Invincible” is about as different a film from “Boogie Nights” as one could possibly find: It’s uplifting, uncomplicated and unafraid to engage in some crude simplifications for the sake of sentimentality. It manages the further feat of chronicling the inspirational tale of a blue-collar sports hero from 1970s Philadelphia while staying completely out of Rocky Balboa’s shadow.
Set in 1976, the film opens to find 31-year-old Vince Papale in a major rut: He struggles to make ends meet as a bartender and a substitute teacher, his wife considers him a failure and his beloved Philadelphia Eagles have just finished one of their worst seasons in recent memory. The one thing that seems to bring him any comfort or joy is a nighttime football league in which he and his loyal friends — bartenders and barflies alike — batter and bruise their opponents in a vacant lot illuminated by car headlights.
The bottom falls out on Vince when he comes home from bartending one evening to find his humble apartment completely empty — his wife gone, the rooms stripped bare of all but a telephone, some chairs and a note scribbled on a pizza box informing Vince that he’ll never amount to anything. And for a moment or two, it does seem likely that Vince is condemned to spend the rest of his lifetime alone, serving drinks to the sullen working stiffs who haunt his buddy’s bar. That is, until the Eagles’ new head coach, Dick Vermeil, played by a no-nonsense Greg Kinnear (who himself sports an impressive mop), appears on television one day announcing open tryouts for any Philly fan who wishes to join the team.
Vince is urged by his friends to try out — after all, he positively dominates in their pickup gridiron battles — but he is reluctant until his father (Kevin Conway) advises him not to. “Better let this one go,” he tells his son. “A man can only take so much failure.”
Resolved to prove at least one doubter wrong, and resolved especially to defeat his ex-wife’s pizza-box dictum, Vince heads to Veterans’ Stadium, tries out — his blinding speed emphasized by some tactless slow-motion shots complete with that ’70s hair blowing in the wind — and catches Vermeil’s eye. Soon he finds himself in Eagles training camp, subjected to one test after another as he works his way to the top, though the audience must never really doubt whether he will make it. As with most sports movies of an inspirational bent, the object is not so much to create suspense as it is to stir the viewer’s emotions into a rousing climax.
To its credit, “Invincible” succeeds in this regard much more often than it fails. Wahlberg’s Papale is thoroughly easy to root for: Think Rudy, only a bit more taciturn and a bit less grating. Many of the film’s images contain a lasting emotional resonance without being shoved into the audience’s face. The day before his tryout, Vince goes out for an early-morning run, returns, and is greeted by his battered, forlornly empty apartment. He stands on the steps for a moment, then turns around and continues running until sunset. Vince’s hunger is palpable, even if we are not beaten over the head with it.
Of course, there are also many instances in which the film’s attempts to manipulate our emotions are all too transparent. Vince reconnects with his roots halfway through the movie by playing a slow-motion game of football in the rain with his friends as a classical score rings in the background. The use of picket-lines and dank barrooms to represent hard times in Philadelphia comes off as similarly crude and melodramatic, as does the remark of one down-on-his luck fan who explains what keeps him going in life: “We always had the Eagles.”
Still, such instances of sentimentality fail to compromise what proves to be a remarkably solid and well-produced rags-to-riches story. One can’t help but conclude that the film mirrors the character of Vince Papale himself: It may not have that much to say, and it may not be long on brains, but boy, is it ever big on heart — and hair.