Hackman, Hershey and Hopper = Hoosiers
It has to be said that most sports movies are quite generic, using an underdog story which is often based on an inspiring true story and as such tend to be quite flat and predictable as you go through the motions of a well worn formula. Whilst "Hoosiers", also known as "Best Shot", is another underdog sports movie based on the inspirational true story of a small town basketball team who reach the state finals, it is surprisingly a lot more. It has a multi layered story which focuses as much about what happens on the on the court as it does off, it has a naturalness too it as it builds up the emotion and tension, it sets the standards for delivering sports action in a movie and features characters and performances which feel real especially from it's stars Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper. It is quite literally one of the great sports movies and although made in the 80's is timeless because it is set in the 1950's.
Based upon a true story "Hoosiers" stars Gene Hackman (Superman II) as Normal Dale a coach with a more than chequered past who finds himself given one more chance when asked to coach the high school basketball team of Hickory Indiana. Met with initial opposition from the towns folk who disapprove of Dales coaching techniques as well as fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey - The Natural), he slowly manages to win around the basketball loving town as his techniques, which include employing the town drunk, Shooter (Dennis Hopper - True Grit), prove to be successful and take the small town team to the edge of greatness at the State Championships.
What really makes "Hoosiers" stand out is that whilst on the surface it appears to be just that stereotypical story of a new coach who takes an average team on the road to greatness it is actually a multi layered storyline with elements which make it more rounded. It takes on the relationship between a drunk father and his son who is embarrassed by his dad, the small kid who being small is the butt of the joke being on a basketball team, the talented basketball player who after the death of a previous coach has withdrawn into a shell and refuses to play despite the small towns clamour for him to join in and the tense relationship between coach Dale and teacher Myra Fleener which rumbles along. It's a brilliant blend of storylines expertly managed so that they make for as much drama away from the court as there is on but never becoming the sole focus or causing a distraction even when they seem like they may.
Whilst other sports movies such as "Coach Carter" have come close in the following years to match the magnificence of "Hoosiers", it is the overall drama which makes it still better than the rest. It has a naturalness to it, sucking you in to the lives of the various main characters as well as the emotions of the small town who live and breathe basketball, gripping you as the tension and emotion of the storyline builds to a much expected crescendo as the team manage to reach the state finals, but also as the sub stories get closure. But instead of feeling completely predictable it manages to deliver that feeling of being on a knifes edge where you don't know whether coach Dales past discretions will return to spoil things or whether on the big stage the team will choke, well unless you know the true story that is. It is something very few movies manage especially when delivering a formulaic storyline and is one of the reasons why "Hoosiers" still sets the bench mark for all other sports movies.
Adding to all the splendour is the wonderful camera work especially during the basketball games as you are immersed into the actual action. Close ups of the playing and the sheer pace of the game is delivered to give you that frenetic and tense feeling of the game especially when the clock is ticking down. But it's also the camera work away from the court which is just as good and with autumnal hues of the small town setting the sense of location beautifully; it is very much a complete visual experience.
"Hoosiers" is also helped by 3 knock out performances and 3 well developed characters which Gene Hackman leading the movie as Norman Dale the new coach with a slightly chequered past. It's not an over the top performance which relies on exuberant actions but one which shows the stress and passion of a manager who is trying to do something special. It's intense on the court and in many ways reminded me of Man Utd manager Alex Ferguson for the passion but is also more gentle and compassionate away from it as he tries to understand the small town life he finds himself in and those characters that come into his life. It really is a powerful performance from Hackman who ignores all the obvious pitfalls of playing what could have ended up a very cliché character to deliver something more real and unique.
Then there is Barbara Hershey as fellow teacher Myra Fleener who clashes with Dale due to her protective nature of Jimmy the talented player who has stopped playing. It's a great character who having left Hickory and experienced life away from the small town now is not so much trapped there having returned but settled, yet realises that many students could amount to so much more if they could escape the small town life. Hershey really delivers that believability that of someone who has the wisdom of seeing what there is outside of Hickory yet knows most of the students will end up following their fathers into becoming farmers. The only negative and it's not to do with Hershey's performance but the sort of romance which forms between Myra and Norman which feels a little out of place and could have ended up as a distraction.
Finally there is the always impressive Dennis Hopper who as the town drunk Shooter struggles with self belief but also that his son is embarrassed by him. It's a great character with a great storyline but it is Hopper's performance which stands out stealing the scene whenever he appears especially in those when having been offered a chance to prove himself by Norman struggles with the aftermath of his alcohol addiction.
Whilst the trio of Hackman, Hershey and Hopper make "Hoosiers" an impressive movie they are aided by some great supporting performances from the team of players as well as the towns men's folk whose initial apprehension of the new coach really helps set the scene but more importantly feels believable. Plus there are the wonderful crowd scenes at all the basketball games which really help capture the atmosphere, be it the disapproval of Dale's methods or the euphoria of their team winning games.
What this all boils down to is that "Hoosiers" is a great movie. Is it the greatest sports movie, well it's one of the greatest with it's great camera work, multi layered story, great characters even greater performances and an inspirational tale which lifts you to nearly a peak of euphoria as the movie progresses. It is though probably the best basketball movie I have had the pleasure to watch and shows the an underdog movie inspired by a true story doesn't need to feel completely predictable.