Judge David Johnson is two years late to the party on this one, but sure is glad he finally showed up.
Our review of Undefeated (2003), published April 23rd, 2004, is also available.
Character will be revealed.
There are compelling arguments about the danger of youth football. Undefeated delivers a stunning counter.
Facts of the Case
When documentary filmmakers Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin were alerted to a potentially interesting sports story in Memphis, they packed up their gear and took a peek. A blue-chip football prospect named O.C. Brown was splitting his time between living with his grandmother in the poorest section of Memphis and bunking with an affluent white family to work on his schooling. Yet as Lindsay and Martin explored the circumstance more, they realized that O.C.'s story was just a small part of a much more compelling saga: the tale of an underachieving, inner-city high school football team and the volunteer coach who was determined to turn the lives of his players.
It's been a while. I can't recall the last film that blew me away so much I couldn't help but tell everyone I know about it. Undefeated is that movie for me now, and I am a dedicated evangelist of its graces. What Lindsay and Martin were able to capture here is nothing short of staggering.
For an entire season they shadowed the coaches and players of the Manassas Tigers, documenting their quest to do something no other Manassas team was ever able to do: win a playoff football game. We see the practices and the schemes and the games, but it's not long into the runtime when the reality dawns: Undefeated is so much more than a sports movie.
Yet it's also one of the all-time greatest sports movies ever made. That's the genius. Just as coach Bill Courtney repeatedly proclaims to his players, "football reveals character," the game is a foundation for bigger things. His approach is to use football as the mechanism to help his boys discover what tireless work, selflessness and sacrifice can mean when applied to life.
I know, I know; it sounds hokey. It sounded hokey while I wrote it just now. But nothing blows up hokey more than earnestness. Bill Courtney is earnest. He's legit. The kids recognize this. And they respond.
So, yeah, there is sports. And football. Glorious football. The games are shot with a cinematic flair and edited to maximize the on-field drama. The competition drives the film, yet it's Bill Courtney and a handful of players that supply the true power.
Seriously, you think Courtney has rehearsed his speeches. They're that good. He is tireless in his efforts to shape these young men, and even hints at this perceived role as a de facto father figure (especially since many of his players are without fathers in their lives.) You can see the pressure of this in his actions and his demeanor; some of the most impact-heavy sequences comes as Bill grapples with the reality his own kids are getting less face-time with their dad than the kids in Manassas. Dads and sons. That's a big part of Undefeated.
Of course, nothing will prepare you for the true emotional gut punches Lindsay and Martin have on the ready. There are at least three sequences that brought me to tears. Good tears, too. Inspiring, heart-swelling stuff. How these two directors were able to luck into capturing such poignancy is a true marvel. I am not being hyperbolic here: you couldn't script this stuff any better.
That's all I'm going to say about this film. I kept this review purposely vague because Undefeated absolutely works the best when you don't know what to expect. I went in banking on seeing…a football movie I guess.
And that's what I got. Plus a whole lot more.
Now I can't stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. It's one of the best movies I have ever seen.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray features decent A/V specs, starting with a clean 1.78:1/1080p transfer and a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that handles mainly dialogue and ambient football noise, but does so admirably. Sturdier extras would have been appreciated however; directors' commentary, deleted scenes and a standard-issue making-of featurette are it.
Here is the absolute best compliment I can pay Undefeated: "It takes one person to make a difference" is an oft-used, shallow cliché, but I defy you to not believe it with all your being after you watch this film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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