It’s college football season now, right? So I suppose it’s time to dust this one off. Given the timing of the film’s release (late 1993), this would have been written as a “Reel Thing Report,” the two-minute segments that were aired a couple times a day after my colleague and I decided to retire the weekly show. I didn’t recall we’d kept them going as long into the fall that year, but here’s the proof we did.
One of the unfortunate things about many sports movies is the way filmmakers drain all of the natural excitement out of the individual sports by rooting the films into deep, established patterns. All too often, a sports movie begins with a team of misfits which is transformed into an impressive winning machine by a star player or an abrasive coach. And, perhaps most frustrating, sports movies end with the Big Game, the moment in which the team is truly put to the test and almost always emerge triumphant, regardless of the ridiculous odds against them. It’s to the credit of the creators of the new film “Rudy” that they disregard those tired themes to create a very different sort of sports film. It’s not about capturing a championship or trouncing some notorious rivals. Instead, it’s about the thrill of simply being able to play in a game as a respected member of the team, the powerful joy that comes with merely taking the field.
Based on an unlikely true story, “Rudy” follows the life of a young man named Daniel Reuttiger, who comes from a blue collar family in Illinois. All his life, Reuttiger — or Rudy, as he is nicknamed — dreamt of playing football for the Fightin’ Irish of Notre Dame, the team his father follows with unwavering devotion. The problem is that Rudy grows up to be short, small, and slow, hardly a prime candidate for a powerhouse college football team. Despite being turned down by the admissions board of Notre Dame, Rudy perseveres, eventually being granted the opportunity to enter college and therefore try out for the football team. He earns a place on the training squad and is endlessly praised for the amount of heart and spirit he shows, but he never demonstrates enough talent to get him into an actual game. It’s not giving away too much to say that Rudy does eventually get his moment on the gridiron, and it’s during this stretch that the film pulls off it’s slyest trick. It sets you up for a typical shot of starry-eyed, movieland sports bravado and instead delivers a low-key, tiny triumph, which holds far more impact because of its recognizable truth.
With his previous film, “Hoosiers,” director David Anspaugh made a very familiar storyline complete fresh with vibrant performances and a beautiful directing job. Here he’s taken something with the unmistakeable air or cornball and made it ring true. He’s aided a great deal by the understated performance of Sean Astin as the title character. Astin locks in on Rudy’s remarkable determination and expansive, caring heart. It is through his work work that Rudy’s triumph becomes something that the whole audience celebrates. As a film, “Rudy” has plenty of flaws, most notably a tendency to oversimplify and supporting characters as hollow as a discarded football helmet. But the film also had a goodnatured spirit that rivals that of its title character, a quality as rare as it is impressive.
3 stars, out of 4.