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'When the Game Stands Tall' review: Humorless, but with worthwhile messages

Winning isn't everything, but it's certainly the reason most people know De La Salle High School in Concord, California. From 1992 to 2004, the Catholic school's football team, the Spartans, sustained an astounding 12-season, 151-game run that locals called simply "the streak."

"When the Game Stands Tall," Thomas Carter's film about the Spartans, focuses not on the streak, however, but its end. "Don't let the game define who you are," coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel) tells his team. "Let the way you live your lives do that."

Based on the book by Neil Hayes, "When the Game Stands Tall" is unusual among sports movies for valuing teamwork, brotherhood and sacrifice (and not merely paying lip-service to them). Ladouceur, a onetime religious studies teacher, could have made a mint by defecting to a major university. "That's not what I do," he tells his wife, Bev (Laura Dern). Instead, he taught teenage athletes to value effort and dedication, not results, until he retired in 2013.

"When the Game Stands Tall" undermines these noble sentiments by delivering them in a stern, humorless, sanctimonious tone. Caviezel, who played the title role in "The Passion of the Christ," turns Ladouceur into another martyr-like figure. Joyless, morose, almost tortured, the coach treats giddy fans like moneylenders and elated players like Judases. Only when his flock suffers does he come alive, stepping between running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) and his abusive father (Clancy Brown), or speaking at the funeral of real-life linebacker Terrence Kelly (Stephan James), murdered just days before entering the University of Oregon.

Many of this movie's characters are fictional, and its pivotal moment -- a high-stakes game against California's national champions, Long Beach Polytechnic -- has been so drastically reimagined that it now bears no relation to the real event. (Full disclosure: This miffed reviewer is a third-generation Poly alum.) Overall, "When the Game Stands Tall" feels like a post-loss locker-room speech: meaningful, but less than inspirational.

PLOT A winning high-school football team learns what it means to lose.

RATING PG (thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking)

CAST Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern


BOTTOM LINE Worthwhile messages of teamwork and sacrifice, but the stern, humorless tone might make you tune out.

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