This weekend sees the Gerard Butler-starring, Curtis Hanson/Michael Apted-directed surfing picture “Chasing Mavericks” sneak unheralded into theaters, joining a relatively small but illustrious list of surfing movies. Not many fringe sports have been as lucky to have movies like “Big Wednesday,” “Point Break” and “Riding Giants” focused on them, of the relatively few that have been made.
While IMDb is littered with football, baseball, basketball and hockey movies, most sports are lucky to get one movie made about them, let alone a decent one. So, with “Chasing Mavericks” in mind, we’ve picked out five films that center around sports that you don’t find on cinema screens all that often. Some are great, some are terrible, but all provide a side of athletics that’s rarer than some inspirational football movie or goofy basketball comedy. Read on below, and let us know your own favorite obscure sports movies in the comments.
Cycling: “Breaking Away” (1979)
Cycling is in the news for all the wrong reasons these days, thanks to Lance Armstrong. It’s likely that the revelations of his doping have put paid to the various Armstrong biopics that were in the works, but fans of gear-and-spoke movies can still find something a little more uplifting with Peter Yates‘ 1979 film “Breaking Away.” A coming-of-age tale, it focuses on Dave (Dennis Christopher, soon to be seen in “Django Unchained“), a 19-year-old Indiana native obsessed with competitive bicycle racing (and the Italian pros in particular). Along with his three best friends (an impressively starry line-up of Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley), they’re adrift and not sure what to do with their lives, but Dave finds a new purpose when they’re invited to join the Indiana University Little 500 race, a gruelling 50-mile annual event. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the film, bar the central role of cycling, but it’s a warm, humane and affecting story, thanks to a sharp and funny script by cycling enthusiast Steve Tesich (who won an Oscar for the screenplay, and who returned to the sport less successfully for the Kevin Costner-starring “American Flyers“) and direction by veteran Peter Yates (“Bullitt“). It’s a film about people, but the sports elements are pretty thrilling when the race sequences come. Somewhat undervalued these days, it’s certainly worth taking another look at for the uninitiated.
Chess: “Searching For Bobby Fischer” (1994)
Probably the most sedentary sports movie ever made, “Searching For Bobby Fischer” focuses, as you might imagine from the title, on the humble, yet endlessly complex game of chess. And while fans of more athletic pursuits might sneer at the idea, it’s as thrilling a sports movie as you can find. The directorial debut of Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar the same year for his “Schindler’s List” script) and based on the memoir by Fred Waitzkin, it follows Fred’s son Josh (Max Pomeranc, at the time a highly ranked player himself), a young chess prodigy, whose parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen), when they discover his skills, put him into training with legendary chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who tries to encourage him to take a win-at-all costs approach, similar to the legendary Fischer. But Josh is a decent kid, and he resists Bruce’s cold approach for the warm tutelage under the wings of street hustler and speed chess player Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne). Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise that the film did poorly, but it’s a terrific little picture, one in which Zaillian’s understanding of both the game and of human nature shines through. Josh’s dedication to not just winning, but winning right, is a simple message but one that resonates not just when it comes to games of all kinds, but to life as well. And that Zaillian also manages to make chess work as cinema (thanks in part to gorgeous autumnal lensing by Conrad Hall), when so many others have made immediately big screen sports look dull on screen, is something almost miraculous.
Skiing: “Downhill Racer” (1969)
There have been a selection of winter sports movies over the years, but at over 40 years of age, “Downhill Racer” pretty much remains the pinnacle of the genre. The directorial debut of Michael Ritchie (who would go on to make “The Candidate” and “Bad News Bears“), the film stars Robert Redford as Dave Chappelet, an arrogant small-town skier picked out to join the U.S. Olympic team by the coach (Gene Hackman) after someone else is injured. In theory, the path to winning the gold is much the same as other sports pictures before and since, but Ritchie takes a much quieter, more documentary-like approach to the drama than most. Like his later collaboration with Redford on “The Candidate,” it’s ultimately a character study, and one that rings true today. Like many sportsmen, Dave is an uncharismatic, unappealing, not-especially-bright guy who’s exceptionally good at exactly one thing in the world, and it’s a testament to Redford’s skills that he’s able to subdue his persona so effectively. Prefiguring many of the smart, unsentimental pictures that were to follow across the ’70s (but still capturing the skiing action somewhat thrillingly), it’s about as good a film about sports as has ever been made. The film’s burial by Paramount partially inspired Redford to set up Sundance, but its fortunes have been revived recently thanks to a Criterion release.
Lawn Bowling: “Blackball” (2003)
Lawn bowling: the fringiest of fringe sports in the U.S., barely more popular in the U.K., and generally deemed to be a game for the elderly wherever it’s played. So the idea of introducing a charismatic rock-and-roll upstart to the sport does at least hold some comedic promise, which 2003’s “Blackball” unfortunately doesn’t fulfill. A remake of Australian film “Crackerjack,” it’s a vehicle for never-quite-got-there British comic Paul Kaye (“It’s All Gone Pete Tong,” the upcoming season of “Game of Thrones“), who plays Cliff Starkey, a once-promising bowler who was banned from the game only to be picked up by an American sports agent (Vince Vaughn, at the nadir of his career, just before “Old School” and “Dodgeball” revived it) and thrust into something like stardom. It has everything you might expect: a vulgar best friend (Johnny Vegas), an underwritten love interest (Alice Evans) and an elder statesman who eventually comes to respect his colleague (James Cromwell). It’s a fairly decent cast, who were presumably attracted by an impressive behind-the-scenes pedigree — “Calendar Girls” writer Tim Firth wrote the script and Mel Smith (“The Tall Guy“) directs — but they’re wasted on a broad, crass and unimaginative comedy, with Kaye peculiarly unappealing as the lead. Thanks to Vaughn’s sudden career comeback, it got a belated U.S. release, branded as “National Lampoon’s Blackball” in early 2005. I’d like to apologize on the behalf of Great Britain for that.
Cricket: “Wondrous Oblivion” (2003)
A slightly more palatable and very British sports film that landed the same year focused on another sport that baffles the U.S.: cricket. The sport has been the center of a few films in cricket-mad India (most notably the Oscar-nominated 2001 blockbuster “Lagaan“), but even the British have generally deemed it too uncinematic to make it to the big screen, with the exception of this mediocre but harmless coming-of-age tale. Young David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is the son of a pair of Jewish immigrants (Stanley Townsend and Emily Woof) who look suspiciously at their new neighbors, West Indian father Dennis (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter Judy (Leonie Elliott). David falls for Judy quickly, and bonds with Dennis over a shared passion for cricket, while his mother finds herself entangled with Dennis as well, but not everyone in the community are as welcoming… It’s mostly well-meaning fare, predictable and cosy, but there’s a touch of Sirk in the relationship between Woof and Lindo, and the period setting is nicely done. Unlikely to spark a sudden rush of cricket movie copycats, but probably on the better edge of British sports movies.