Thirty years after Rocky Balboa went the distance against Apollo Creed, another working-class hero has risen from the streets of South Philly. Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for Vince Papale, "the real-life Rocky" who, back in 1976, at the not-so-tender age of 30, got added to the Philadelphia Eagles roster without having played college football. In his three seasons with the Iggles, Papale made some special-teams tackles and caught exactly one pass. But that isn't the point. The point is that one year Papale was sitting in the stands and the next year he was running down the field. Cinderella's got nothing on this guy. And now, just as Sylvester Stallone is taping his knuckles for another jab at America's solar plexus, Papale's got his own movie, Invincible, which stars Mark Wahlberg as the NFL's only 5'8" wide receiver.
But hey, height doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that Wahlberg seems younger than his teammates, not older, because the kid's got heart, which is what Papale - considered short at 6'2" - had. A part-time schoolteacher who was moonlighting as a bartender, Papale participated in an open tryout that the Eagles' new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear in what I hope, for his sake, is a wig), cooked up as a way of generating enthusiasm for a team that hadn't been generating much on its own. And although Wahlberg's size makes it seem as if Papale's addition to the team was a glorified publicity stunt, the actor delivers a nicely restrained performance that won't have anybody thinking Rudy. His Papale is a guy who expects to be cut from the team at any moment but - and this is key - still gives 110%.
And thus does he win over a city that has problems of its own. Director Ericson Core, who served as his own cinematographer, lays it on a little thick at times. The movie's palette - all browns and grays - makes the place seem both burnished and tarnished, resplendently grimy. But Philadelphia, during the American Bicentennial, had clearly seen better days, and Core shows us a city that's reeling from cutbacks and layoffs, labor strikes and season-opening losses to the Dallas Cowboys. You almost expect Bruce Springsteen to emerge from the shadows, crooning a dirge to the Spirit of '76. Instead, Core goes with a Greatest Hits of the '70s compilation, starting with Jim Croce's "I Got a Name." And the movie does a good job of saying '70s without shouting '70s, from Papale's beat-up Chevy Nova to his ever-so-slightly puffy-sleeved shirt.
Core doesn't milk the moment when Papale holds a genuine Eagles helmet and jersey - his helmet and jersey - in his hands for the first time. He doesn't milk any of the moments, to his credit. But there's milk nevertheless, for Invincible may be set in blue-collar Philadelphia, but it's also set in the Wonderful World of Disney, home of Miracle and The Rookie, not to mention Remember the Titans. And Papale's story, as inspiring as it already was, has been imagineered into a fairy tale. No, he hadn't played college football, but he had played semipro football, from which soaring with the Eagles doesn't seem like such an impossible dream. Then again, he still holds the record as the oldest rookie to play in the NFL. And however dubious that honor may be, it's an honor that all of us over 30 can totally get behind.