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Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: March 18, 12:19 PM ET
THE SPORTS GUY

By Bill Simmons

I love Will Ferrell. I love hoops. I loved the ABA. I love laughing. On paper, Semi-Pro should have been right in my wheelhouse.

Nope.

I chuckled four times, if that. To tell you the truth, I spent most of its 90 minutes depressed—not just that Ferrell made such a predictable farce that ripped off three of his previous movies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory), but that Hollywood has managed to transform the sports-movie genre into such a shameless, formulaic machine. Just find a star for the movie poster and ads, follow the underdog formula, decide on a direction (inspirational or funny), rehash a plot we've seen 45 times already, and you're good to go.

In a review of Gridiron Gang two years ago, I wrote that sports movies had become a high-stakes game of Mad Libs: Any studio exec could buy 300 index cards, write one word or phrase on each (either a sport, plot, scenario, famous star or another movie to rip off), stick the cards in a jar, shake it, pull out four cards and—presto!—instant sports movie. In fact, I'm convinced this is how Semi-Pro got made. Ferrell … hoops … slapstick … '70s.

Green light.

The good news: Despite a big marketing campaign, smart casting and a surprisingly big budget of $57 million, Semi-Pro tanked at the box office, making just $15 million its opening weekend. The bad news: By the time its international run ends, its soundtrack stops selling, its cable rights are sold and its DVDs and Blu-rays have hit stores ("With two hours of deleted scenes and an alternate ending!"), Semi-Pro will have made New Line boatloads of money. Even though it kinda sucked.

That's why I'm losing hope. Only two classic sports movies have been released in the past 10 years: Rounders and Friday Night Lights. Now, you're probably saying, "Wait, Million Dollar Baby won an Oscar, everyone loved Remember the Titans and Seabiscuit, Miracle and The Rookie were good, and Cinderella Man was well received. How can you say it's been a bad decade for sports movies?"

Because standards for sports movies are different. It's not about seeing it that first time; it's about the 10th time, the 15th and the 25th. And of everything from the past 10 years, only Rounders and FNL pass the test. (Million Dollar Baby may have been great, but as with Raging Bull, one viewing is more than enough.) There's a reason Spike and TNT keep showing Rocky marathons, right? Rocky III is your buddy. You've already seen the Thunderlips scene 935 times, but if it came on right now, you'd go for 936. Be honest. Same for Reg Dunlop unleashing the Hansons or Jimmy Chitwood finally joining Hickory High or Terence Mann stopping Ray Kinsella's van by yelling "Moonlight Graham!" American Flyers was on cable recently. I've seen it 15 to 20 times and own it on DVD. It was going against a full slate of college hoops and NBA on a Sunday afternoon. You know what? I went with Costner and his brother trying to win Hell of the West again. I knew they weren't gonna let me down.

See, sports movies fill a void created by the real sports world. So many times we are disappointed by a game, a player, a team, a playoffs. But with rewatchably good sports movies, we're always in control. Louden Swain is always going to pin Shute. The Good Nazi will always stand up after Pelé nails that bicycle kick. Carl Spackler's "Cinderella story" will always be funny. Roy Hobbs' final homer will always shatter the lights. And Costner's wimpy brother will always beat the Cannibal by one second as Costner cheers him on with a porn mustache.

But the industry has dipped so far that I'll let a movie slide if only a piece of it is worth watching. You need to pop two Dramamine to watch most of Any Given Sunday, but I'll always stick it out long enough to see Steamin' Willie Beamen and Pacino's locker room speech. That's how easy I am. You can reel me in with one quality character, a few football scenes and a single goose-bumps speech. Doesn't take much. And say what you want about Sunday, but at least it takes chances.

That's what we've been missing the past 10 years, as sports movies have shifted from "rewatchably good" to "predictably good." I blame Titans for this trend; after it earned a surprising $114 million, inspirational, semisappy, "based on a true story" copycats like Miracle, We Are Marshall, Pride, Coach Carter, Radio, Gridiron Gang, The Rookie and Invincible quickly followed. I enjoyed each of those flicks to varying degrees, but whenever they pop up on cable, I've already got the remote in hand. Same for slapstick farces (Dodgeball, The Benchwarmers, any Ferrell movie); inexplicable remakes like Bad News Bears, Rollerball and The Longest Yard; and any of the pseudo remakes—and that "based on true events" thing doesn't get them a pass in my book—in which a white cast is exchanged for a black cast (like in Glory Road and Hard Ball).

Where does that leave us? I think we're headed for a grisly decade of indefensible remakes (like the bone-chilling news that someone is redoing The Jericho Mile), formulaic farces ("Mike Myers as a wacky British boxing champ!") and dozens of based-on-a-true-story sapfests flying off some assembly line (don't be shocked if five Jason McElwain movies are released simultaneously). Maybe you'll see a couple of indies succeed like Bend It Like Beckham did, and the inevitable Rounders sequel may work. I'd settle for two more original, well-written, well-acted efforts along the lines of Jerry Maguire and Love & Basketball, as well as three or four more unassuming, entertaining, we're-not-gunning-for- an-Oscar-here flicks like Varsity Blues. But I'm not keeping my hopes up.

Could the genre of the rewatchable sports movie simply be played out? Every idea has been done and redone. Every sport has a defining movie except, oddly, tennis. (Uh-oh, the monster's out of the cage.) Every new movie will be forced to compete against the ghosts of old ones that live on in the cable universe. (Inevitably, they will lose.) And since they're still making money with the Mad Libs formula, it's not as if Hollywood will stop anytime soon.

Fortunately, there's hope. Reincarnated as a TV show, FNL resonated with viewers like no sports movie in the 21st century has. Characters evolved; story lines meant something; game scenes compared well with those in movies; and, even better, people cared. It's also a surprisingly rewatchable show. On my cable system, we have a channel called Universal HD, and I find myself getting sucked into episodes I've already seen. I even watched the one about Lyla Garrity's slam page twice in three days.

So maybe that's where we're headed. Sports movies will continue to produce profits and fill a void, but the payoff for our emotional investment will be in complicated series like FNL. Thoughtful, carefully crafted shows about a minor league baseball team, a college football team and an inner-city high school basketball team could work just as well, right? Maybe they'd work so well, we'd want to watch the episodes more than once. It's a pipe dream, but it's better than nothing.

And it's certainly better than paying $10 to see Semi-Pro.

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