In his new film Hustle, which is in select theaters now and will hit Netflix on Wednesday, Adam Sandler plays a down-on-his-luck 76ers scout who unearths a young phenom in Spain and banks that the kid can help him save his career in pro basketball. It’s the kind of underdog plot that has a long history in sports movies and, more specifically, in sports movies with strong connections to Philadelphia.
So, to mark this latest addition to the canon, here’s one man’s list of the 10 best Philadelphia sports movies ever made. And, because we can’t have any sweet around here without some sour, there’s a bonus, too: the three worst Philadelphia sports movies ever made.
The 10 best Philly sports movies
10. Rocky II
Yes, the plot drags. Yes, whenever the city’s sports teams are up against it, they get cynics rolling their eyes by playing the clip of Adrian telling Rocky, “Win,” for the 2 millionth time. But the fight sequences work just as well here as they did in the original, and Rocky’s victory and speech at the end pack a powerful emotional punch.
Envisioning Mark Wahlberg as an NFL player takes a slight leap of imagination. But if you can get past that cognitive dissonance, you can appreciate the story of Vince Papale’s remarkable journey to becoming the most famous special-teams player in Eagles history. Plus, any movie with Elizabeth Banks (a Penn alumna) and Paige Turco (I see you, Officer Abby Sullivan!) is a must-see.
Two brothers — one from Philadelphia, one from Pittsburgh — battle in a mixed-martial arts tournament and, in doing so, learn how to love each other and come to terms with their family turmoil and the darkest mistakes and moments of their pasts. The fight action is brutal and realistic, and if you want to understand why Christopher Nolan tabbed Tom Hardy to play Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, watch and appreciate Hardy’s physically demanding performance here as Tommy Conlon.
A brilliant idea well executed. Apollo Creed was so interesting a character that it made sense to explore him in more depth, either through an origin story or, as director Ryan Coogler does here, in the aftermath of his death. Throw in a star-making turn from Michael B. Jordan and an Oscar-nominated performance by Sylvester Stallone as … well, you know who … and pound for pound, Creed is the finest piece of pure filmmaking in the Rocky franchise since the series’ first film.
6. Big Fan
At once sweet and dark, this 2009 film is the fictional tale of New York Giants fan Paul Aufiero, who is rabid to an off-putting degree yet somehow still endearing. Played by Patton Oswalt, Aufiero follows a handwritten script when he calls into sports-talk shows. He tailgates at Giants games only to spend the whole day in the parking lot, sitting in a folding chair, watching the action on TV with his buddy. And he tracks down and enacts revenge against an equally obsessive Eagles fan (Michael Rapaport), which leads to the movie’s surprising climax. Robert Siegel, who wrote and directed Big Fan, could have fallen into cliché here, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t.
5. The Last Game
A personal favorite. This documentary by a pair of independent filmmakers chronicles the 1999 Central Bucks High School West football season, the final season in the storied career of Mike Pettine Sr., the Bucks’ legendary coach. From C.B. West’s rivalry with North Penn — coached at the time by Mike Pettine Jr. — to the Bucks’ dramatic run to a third consecutive state championship, the story had plenty of natural drama and intriguing story lines. And anyone familiar with the history of Doylestown and/or C.B. West football — under Pettine, the Bucks were arguably the top program in the country — can attest to the film’s accuracy.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
Ten years after its release, this film resonates as much today for its frank depiction of mental-health disorders as it does for its frank and often-funny depiction of a family of Eagles fans who tend to get a bit … intense. That said, as terrific as SLP is — it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and Jennifer Lawrence won for Best Actress — the novel it was based on, written by South Jersey native and La Salle University alumnus Matthew Quick, is even better.
Director Bennett Miller’s rendition of John du Pont’s murder of wrestling coach Dave Schultz is as disturbing as the case itself. The film is loaded with terrific performances from Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, and especially Steve Carell, who so embodies the creepy, disquieting du Pont that you have to remind yourself that he’s the same actor who starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Dinner with Schmucks.
2. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke puts the sneer aside in the role of his life as aging pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, swollen from steroids and full of regret. In the film’s most memorable scene, shot at what is now called 2300 Arena on South Swanson Street, another wrestler takes a staple gun to Robinson’s bare chest during a match, an indication of how far these men are willing to go to cling to their ebbing fame. It’s a great film, and its title song is one of the most moving and underrated in Bruce Springsteen’s entire catalog.
At the top of the list, now and forever. Stallone captured something intrinsically Philadelphian in the film’s plot and its main character. Forget the predawn egg milkshake and the run up the Art Museum steps. Notice the interaction between Rocky and Adrian the night before the title bout, when he tells her that he just wants to “go the distance” against the champ and prove to himself and everyone else that he’s not “just another bum from the neighborhood.” It’s the best scene in the best sports movie ever made.
The three worst Philly sports movies
If you were a kid in the late 1980s, you know that, between this movie and Summer School, Mark Harmon was a ubiquitous presence on basic cable for a couple of years. Here, Harmon plays Billy Wyatt, once a hot prospect for the Phillies who has fallen on hard times and has to figure out what to do with the ashes of his late friend/first love, played by Jodie Foster. There are lots of shots of Chestnut Hill and a ridiculous scene set in Veterans Stadium, but other than for the local nostalgia, Stealing Home isn’t worth a rewatch. It’s treacly. It’s trite. Roger Ebert wrote that he “left the screening wondering if any movie could possibly be that bad.” But hey, long live PRISM!
This movie aspires to be Remember the Titans for backstrokers and fails for being too formulaic. Amid racism in the 1970s, a Philadelphia rec center coach refurbishes an old pool, teaches several Black kids how to swim, and leads them into a big meet. The acting is overwrought. The characters are one-dimensional. And the script lacks any complexity or nuance.
What’s a boxer to do once he has helped the United States win the Cold War? Go back to the old neighborhood. Try to raise his smart-mouth son. Train an up-and-coming fighter, Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, who eventually turns against him and aligns himself with a sleazy promoter who bears a not-so-subtle resemblance to Don King. The betrayal leads to an aging Rocky and an arrogant Tommy throwing haymakers at each other in the streets of Kensington while people pour out of rowhouses and the corner bar to watch. Stan Hochman, Elmer Smith, and Al Meltzer had memorable cameos as reporters badgering Gunn during a press conference. Otherwise … blech.