Most people love either movies or sports or both. So it’s natural that Hollywood would try to tap into this market. Hundreds of sports movies have been made and some were good, some were pretty bad. But a few of them were great and have transcended movies and become part of our popular culture.
Baseball movies are overrepresented, but this could be a reflection of its status as America’s pastime. But whatever the sport, the movies that depict them generally follow a familiar template: an underdog struggles in obscurity then gets a big chance to shine that nearly upends his life before he ultimately pushes through to victory.
There have been many variations on this tried and true story, but the reason Hollywood keeps using it is because it works. When it works particularly well, a classic is born.
15. Cinderfella Story
Cinderella Man is about a man struggling to support his family during the Great Depression. This was an era when men were expected to be men. Russell Crowe portrays boxer James Braddock a light heavyweight contender who was forced to retire because of a broken right hand.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story it’s only the beginning. When Braddock is given a chance to fight again he wins despite the injury. This victory leads to a shot at the heavyweight title against the formidable and feared Max Baer. In true underdog fashion Braddock overcomes 10-1 odds to defeat Baer in June, 1935 and becomes the heavyweight champ of the world.
One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Braddock uses prize money to pay back welfare payments his family received while he was unemployed. The movie was a critical and box office success in 2005. Moviegoers love a Cinderella story.
14. There is no Fear in This Dojo
A lot of kids joined karate classes after seeing 1984’s The Karate Kid. It hit a chord with kids who had been underestimated or bullied as Daniel is after moving to Los Angeles from the east coast with his mother. Fortunately, Daniel develops a relationship with the apartment complex handyman Mr. Miyagi — a kind and wise man of many talents.
There’s is the classic student-mentor relationship that tests the student. His girlfriend — played by Elizabeth Shue — inspires Daniel. His journey ends in a confrontation with his tormentor, a protege of a slightly menacing sensei at a local dojo.
The karate tournament is a thrilling climax and the hero eventually comes out on top. This is a classic underdog story spawned several sequels. It also inspired a few remakes, but none of them captured the charm of the original.
13. Throwing Like a Girl
Major League Baseball owners thought the 1943 season would have to be canceled because so many players had joined the war effort against the Axis Powers. A League of Their Own is a fictionalized account of the real life efforts of Chicago Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley to start a women’s soft ball league.
The league survived World War II, disbanding in 1954. Gena Davis played the league’ most popular player, a woman named Dottie Hinson. Although Davis, Madonna and other women provide compelling performances, Tom Hanks steals the show as the lovable, but often drunk manager Jim Dugan.
The movie depicts some of the struggles and obstacles female athletes faced such as being regarded as sex objects instead of ball players. A League of Their Own evokes nostalgia for baseball and the heroics of the World War II era.
12. Slap in the Face
Hollywood hasn’t made a lot of hockey movies compared to the number of baseball movies. But it’s made some interesting ones. Slap Shot starring Paul Newman was released in 1977 and aggressively took comedic aim at a sport that had long been toiling in the shadows of baseball, football and basketball.
The Chiefs are a member of the Federal Hockey League, a failing concern in Charlestown — part of America’s rust belt. The plot revolves around the dwindling fortunes of the team and a rumored sale to Florida. However, the real fun are the exploits of the team’s colorful characters especially the three Hanson brothers.
Beloved by the fans, these men-children play with toys and practice a particularly rough brand of “goon” hockey. Newman’s character follows the familiar path of struggle and reconciliation with his true love. He also earns redemption as he learns he can transcend the game.
11. The Hard Knock Life
At 52 Mickey Rourke launched something of a comeback when he landed the role of a lifetime as declining professional wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson. Released in 2008, The Wrestler captures the nostalgia many middle-aged people feel for the 1980’s, a time of hair bands and epic matches between the Ram and the Ayatollah.
At least that’s the way Randy remembers it. He’s fallen on hard times since then, struggling to get by with part-time jobs and a handful of crude professional matches. He tries to reconcile with his daughter and pursues a stripper who’s also past her prime, but a chance at redemption beckons.
Although he’s been told to retire or risk his life, Randy can’t refuse a chance to recapture the glory days with a rematch against his nemesis the Ayatollah.
10. Major League Chumps
A colorful cast that includes Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Berenson and Wesley Snipes made 1989’s Major League a major league hit with moviegoers. Characters like Sheen’s ex-con with a rocket for an arm and Dennis Haysbert’s voodoo practicing slugger provide plenty of laughs.
There’s also Tom Berenger’s brave old catcher trying to make the most of his last chance in the big leagues. The unlikely collection of misfit Indians is put together to fail by the team’s owner so she can move them out of cold Cleveland to a warmer city.
But against all odds and common sense, the players become a united team and start winning. There are the usual trial and tribulations along the way, but the tribe inevitably find themselves in the American League pennant series against the New York Yankees.
9. Ice Capades
Sometimes real events are so improbable they seem almost too good to be true. The U.S. hockey team’s victory over the juggernaut Soviet team in the 1980 Olympic games was one of those events. Miracle was released in 2004, more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. But in 1980, the Cold War between the two superpowers was near its peak.
Kurt Russell plays the U.S. coach Herb Brooks, whose no-nonsense style could be hard on the players, but showed great results. Brooks was able to mold an effective team from a collection of kids who’d never played with one another before and go up against the highly-disciplined and professional Soviets.
Like most sports movies, Miracle establishes the impossible odds the underdogs face as they make their run in Olympics Games. The tension builds as the U.S. team makes it into the later rounds then culminates in the unbelievable gold medal game where they emerge victorious.
8. Who’s Ear?
The origin and meaning of ‘Hoosier’ has been in doubt since the early 19th century. One legend says that early Indianans were a particularly rough bunch involved in more than their share of tavern fights. Patrons could often be heard asking “who’s ear?” as in “whose ear is this laying on the floor?”
The phrase eventually morphed into “hoosier.” Whatever its origin, the word now conjures Indiana basketball. In the 1986 movie Hoosiers, Gene Hackman plays real-life coach Norman Dale, a man trying to overcome problems in his past by leading a group of kids at Hickory High School to a championship in 1954.
Hickory is based on the real Milan High School that won the state championship. Dennis Hopper, who was nominated for an Academy Award, plays the town drunk who coach Dale hires as his assistant. The coaches are at odds with the players and the town for their unorthodox system, but eventually win the team and the town over as they pursue a championship.
7. Bull In a China Shop
Robert De Niro has played a lot of violent parts, but perhaps none as disturbing as his portrayal of real-life boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull released in 1980. Martin Scorsese’s direction puts the brutal fights and the even more brutal home life of the infamous prizefighter right in your lap.
The antithesis of the fictional Rocky Balboa, La Motta was despised and feared by opponents, friends and family alike. The movie is an unflinching examination of a violent, dangerous man whose ferocity made him a champion in the ring but a menace everywhere else. Anyone who loves movies should give it a look and not let Scorsese’s decision to film it in black and white put them off from watching a challenging, but worthy addition to the list of classic sports movies.
6. Build it and They will Come
An Iowa farmer named Ray, played by Kevin Costner, starts to hear a voice urging him to do strange things. This doesn’t sound like an auspicious start to a baseball movie. Until the voices compelled him to turn his cornfield into a baseball diamond.
Ghosts of baseball’s past soon visit his cornfield including the infamous Shoeless Joe Jackson played by Ray Liotta. Field of Dreams, released in 1989, uses Ray’s love of baseball to explore unresolved issues with his late father.
James Earl Jones plays a writer named who fills in as a father figure for Ray as they go on a spiritual journey to big league baseball parks. Burt Lancaster has a small role as a former ballplayer Ray tracks down in a small town, where he’s been practicing medicine for decades.
5. North Dallas Foul-Up
North Dallas Forty depicts a fictional football team called the North Dallas Bulls that are based on the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1970’s. The movie was adapted from a novel of the same name by a former Cowboy wide receiver, Peter Gent.
Released in 1979, the movie strikes a comedic tone with an underlying cynicism embodied by Nick Nolte’s character, Phillip Elliot. Elliot is a talented, but aging player who knows younger players threaten to eclipse him. The move tackles a variety of themes surrounding professional sports including the wild party lifestyle, the pressure to use drugs and play injured and the realities of big business that drives the NFL.
4. Pool Shark
“Fast” Eddie Felson is a talented but self-destructive character who lets his ego drive him to the edge. Paul Newman is the title character in 1961’s The Hustler and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Newman holds his ground against Jackie Gleason, the patriarchal master who ultimately brings Eddie down.
Like many movie protagonists Eddie must nearly come to ruin before pulling back just in time to retain his humanity. Newman reprised his role in The Color of Money released in 1986.
The sequel was a vehicle for rising star Tom Cruise who plays Vincent. Although not considered a classic like The Hustler, it is a worthy follow-up. It explores some of the same themes using Cruise as the young hustler.
3. Bad News for Baseball
The 1976 Bad News Bears takes the adult politics and player shenanigans found in little league to the next level. The result is an irreverently funny and heartfelt movie that stands up well even though it was remade in 2005.
Walther Matthau stars as Buttermaker, a heavy drinking pool cleaner hired to coach a hapless team made up of colorful, but talentless young players. Buttermaker convinces a girl with a great arm to pitch for the Bears. The team also gets help from a tough kid who’s the best ball player around.
The Bear’s pursuit of victory and respect starts to bring out the worst in Buttermaker for a time as he lets winning overshadow the camaraderie and fun he’d inspired in his squad. The Bad News Bears is a classic underdog story that follows the team’s rise from laughing stock to contender without being too sentimental about their prospects to win it all.
2. Bull Session
This baseball movie rings true. Even though 1988’s Bull Durham has some whacky characters and moments it feels very much grounded in the world of minor league baseball. Waxing philosophical may not be associated with baseball, but Susan Sarandon’s character is not the average baseball fan.
Annie Savoy is part baseball groupie, part baseball advisor who helps young Durham Bulls perform on and off the field. She is intrigued and challenged by an aging catcher,Kevin Costner’s “Crash” Davis.
Davis is a journeyman minor league player who was briefly in the majors, but is reluctantly settling into the role of mentor to Tim Robbins’ up-and-coming pitcher Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh. Laloosh is talented, but immature and it’s his catcher’s job to help him prepare to become a major league star.
1. Shot at the Title
Rocky was released in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, but a time of stagflation and malaise. Rocky Balboa embodied the down-and-out underdog, when Americans needed a hero they could root for.
Rocky works for a small-time gangster as a collector, but he’s too nice to actually break anyone’s fingers. He likes the shy young clerk at the pet store, but can’t get anywhere with her until her brother forces her on a date with him.
Meanwhile, Apollo Creed is a fast-talking, charismatic heavyweight boxing champion inspired by legend Muhammed Ali — the polar opposite of the unassuming Rocky. The champ pulls Rocky from obscurity because he likes his nickname “The Italian Stallion.”
They decide to market Rocky as an descendant of Columbus — fellow Italian who discovered America — to play up the bicentennial hype associated with the fight. Mickey, the elderly gym owner who’s seen it all, reluctantly agrees to train the luckless southpaw for a shot at the title. Rocky spanned seven sequels and a classic franchise.