MGM // 1986 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 18th, 2012
They needed a second chance to finish first.
"My practices aren't designed for your enjoyment."
Once upon a time, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman, The French Connection) was a highly successful college basketball coach. Alas, an unfortunate incident derailed his coaching career, and Dale has spent the past decade serving in the Navy. Now he's returned the realm of athletics, accepting a job as the coach of a minuscule Indiana high school. The local townsfolk aren't particularly fond of Dale's controversial coaching methods, and it becomes clear that Dale is going to have to prove himself quickly if he's going to keep his job. Meanwhile, the coach also begins developing a relationship with fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey, The Last Temptation of Christ) and makes an attempt to help rehabilitate a local drunk named Shooter (Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now). Can Coach Dale bring his little team to the state playoffs?
Why is Hoosiers still such a terrific experience? In the years since its release in 1986, countless sports-themed films have attempted to mimic its inspirational rags-to-riches structure. There's hardly a single element of the film that hasn't been borrowed by something else, and that's the sort of thing that can make a supposedly "classic" movie feel dated and wheezy (see Judge Patrick Bromley's review of Meatballs, for instance). Somehow, despite hitting so many familiar beats and doing so many things we've seen countless times, Hoosiers is still a pretty magical flick.
Part of that is that the film does such an effective job of establishing a sense of place. In today's bustling world, a small town like Hickory, Indiana, might initially look like a quiet paradise, but once we get to know the people we realize why it's also something of a sinkhole for hopes and dreams. Even the most talented basketball players aren't going to get scholarships, because nobody's going to watch them play. This becomes all the more heartbreaking when you realize that basketball is everything to this town; it's practically all the locals can talk about. At one point, Myra tells Coach Dale why she doesn't want the incredibly talented Jimmy to shine on the basketball court:
Myra: "A basketball hero around here is treated like a god. How can he
ever find out what he can really do? I don't want this to be the high point of
his life. I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around here the rest of
their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years
Coach Dale: "You know, most people would kill to be treated like a god. Just for a few moments."
Like most great sports movies, Hoosiers is great because its about something bigger than the final score of The Big Game. It's a movie about redemption. The key to the movie can be found in an early scene in which one of the players angrily storms out of practice. Shortly after, with the urging of his father, the player returns to apologize to the coach and earnestly asks for a second chance. It's a small-scale version of what a lot of characters are going through: attempting to make a comeback with the support of others who care about them. Coach Dale, Shooter, Jimmy, Myra -- these are all characters who probably would continue living in misery if left to their own devices, but they're each given another shot at happiness and success thanks to the intervention of people who care about them. The movie doesn't go out of its way to hammer this point home, but rather integrates this into the fabric of the film in such a natural way that you almost don't notice.
However, let it be said that the actual sports action in Hoosiers is tremendously exciting, directed with vigor and clarity by director David Anspaugh (who also helmed the rousing Rudy, yet another inspirational sports flick capable of making hardened men weep like babies). The scenes partially work as well as they do because we're invested in the characters, but Anspaugh deserves a great deal of credit for knowing precisely how to keep the personalities of the players and coaches involved throughout (too often in sports movies, it seems as if any characterization of note is benched while the games are being played). Further energy is added by Jerry Goldsmith's terrific score, which delivers surging, wildly infectious melodies over weirdly effective basketball-bouncing percussion.
The cast is exceptional across the board, with Hackman leading the charge with his charming, no-nonsense turn as Coach Dale. He does a nice job of contrasting the man's real-life amiability with his courtside fury (Coach Dale has a tendency to get thrown out of games on an alarmingly regular basis), and Hackman does a nice job of hinting at the character's hidden depths as the film proceeds. Barbara Hershey is terrific as his world-weary love interest, though she's arguably the one character the movie short-changes just a bit. Dennis Hopper's Oscar-winning performance is also a thing of beauty; a role which represents a 180-degree turn from his work in films like Blue Velvet and River's Edge during that same time period. It's a gentle, fragile performance; a lovely side of Hopper we saw far too little of over the course of his career.
Hoosiers: 25th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray) has received a...hey, wait a second, Hoosiers was already released on Blu-ray, right? So it was. So what's the difference this time around? Thankfully, not just the commemoration of the anniversary (which is a year late, anyway). The transfer is an improvement -- albeit a modest one -- on the poorly received transfer offered on the original release (one of the very early titles released on the format). As is typically the case on Fox/MGM releases these days, little effort has been put into tampering with the original image, so we get the original grain structure and reasonably solid detail. To be sure, the film could use a good remastering, but this is probably about as good as the film is going to get as long as this particular master is being used. Detail could be a little sharper than it is at times and black crush is an occasional issue, but the film generally looks decent considering its age. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is merely functional, delivering the dialogue and Goldsmith score with clarity but without a lot of pizzazz. The other difference between this release and the previous one is that this one includes all of the bonus features from the special edition DVD release: a commentary with Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo, a half-hour making-of featurette ("Hoosier History: The Truth Behind the Legend"), some generally interesting deleted scenes, an uncut presentation of the real-life game which inspired the film and a theatrical trailer.
Hoosiers might feel familiar, but it's richer, deeper and more entertaining than the vast majority of the films which have attempted to mimic it. The Blu-ray release isn't perfect, but it's a notable step up from the crummy initial hi-def offering.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Original Game