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In every inspirational sports movie, there’s a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that the home team must overcome: a lack of natural ability, a tough opponent, a star player who turns into a wolf. There’s one obstacle so huge, though, that no jock flick had ever dared deploy it before now. After watching We Are Marshall—in which the home team gets killed in the first act—it’s easy to understand why. When United 93 meets Rudy, the deaths tend to overshadow the football.

Marshall is based on the real-life 1970 plane crash that killed 37 Marshall University football players and 38 coaches, fans, and crew members. In the film’s opening sequence, we’re introduced to the crash victims as well as to the lucky few who miss the flight. The characters who perish are by necessity thinly drawn, but their deaths still hit hard. The crash happens off-screen, after some turbulence and a sudden flash. Director McG chooses to focus on what happens in Marshall’s home base of Huntington, W.Va., switching between fast- and slow-motion as two players who missed the road trip hear the news and rush to the scene.

The first 15 minutes of Marshall make for an exhilarating, devastating short film. But then, like the players who develop serious cases of survivor’s guilt, the audience is left with a why-are-we-here problem. Following a prolonged debate, the school decides to resume playing football with a new coach and new players. But after the plane crash, football seems kind of beside the point—especially by-the-numbers movie football.

McG, who directed both Charlie’s Angels movies, does a fine job choreographing the football scenes. The gridiron action looks authentic enough, and he knows when to zoom, when to switch to a wide shot, and how to use sound to punch up the tension. He struggles, though, with creating drama off the field.

Part of the problem is Matthew McConaughey. He plays Jack Lengyel, the man chosen to revive the Marshall program, as a yarn-spinning, happy-go-lucky motivational speaker—Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson with a whistle. McConaughey, who’s become a fixture on the sidelines during University of Texas games, clearly relishes the opportunity to play a coach. But his characterization belongs in a sports movie that aims to be less emotionally complex—Remember the Titans, perhaps.

Marshall as a whole does a bit too much Titans remembering. There’s the same period music, the same football-obsessed little kid, the same scenes of a team learning to play together. Whereas Titans’ likable cast made up for its clichéd plot, there aren’t any characters—any living ones at least—to care about in Marshall. The filmmakers don’t bother to introduce the players who’ve been brought in to restart the program, and of those who survived, only team captain Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) and assistant coach Red Dawson (Lost’s Matthew Fox) are endowed with any sort of personality. The main off-field subplot, in which a surly mill worker (Ian McShane) tries to come to terms with his son’s death in the crash, feels more like a distraction than a needed bit of humanity.

Ultimately, We Are Marshall presents too much of a storytelling challenge for McG and scripter Jamie Linden. During the big game, the audience has no one in particular to cheer for, just the concept of rebirth. That’s what happens when you have a human-interest story that gives the audience no humans to be interested in.

If you’re hoping to create an indelible portrait of a sports underdog, it’s probably a bad idea to release your movie the same week as the latest Rocky opus. Sixteen years after the franchise petered out, writer–director–punching bag Sylvester Stallone has resuscitated the marble-mouthed Philly boxer, he says, as penance for the not-even-ironically enjoyable Rocky V. With both Stallone’s box-office pull and his Italian Stallion character on their last legs, it’s not surprising that the Roman numeral–less Rocky Balboa consciously apes the spare look and feel of the original Rocky (1976). Stallone, it seems, has tried to make Rocky Begins—a movie that desperately wants to win back cred by tearing down the wretched excess of the series’ latter days.

Rocky Balboa trades on the assumption that the audience has grown old with Rocky. For fans of the first film, it’s touching to see the beaten-looking fighter sit beside Adrian’s grave and loiter in front of the pet shop where they met. The 50-something Rocky never sees his son (Milo Ventimiglia), a white-collar number cruncher who resents the shadow that his famous pop has cast over his life. The has-been spends nights at his restaurant (Adrian’s, of course), regaling customers with tales of his glory days. The buildings are crumbling in the old neighborhood, and Rocky looks paunchy and worn down himself. “The whole world’s falling apart. Look at us,” says his best pal Paulie (Burt Young), who’s started to resemble Yoda after a four-day bender.

While Stallone the auteur isn’t at all subtle in using the boxer’s advancing years to gin up poignancy, his acting has a lighter touch. Perhaps Stallone is a master thespian. Perhaps his persona has simply become indistinguishable from Rocky Balboa’s. But either way, there are dozens of small details—his hunched gait, a well-worn anecdote he dishes out at the restaurant, a throwaway comment to neighborhood girl Marie (Geraldine Hughes) that carrying stuff in his pockets makes him “feel like a kangaroo”—that give Rocky the bearing of a real guy.

For all the film’s pounding on the emotional heavy bag, the Rocky formula requires that the standing-around-looking-sad phase give way to the desperately-wanting-to-kick-someone’s-ass phase. On account of there not being one, Rocky Balboa doesn’t trouble itself with conjuring a logical reason for the over-the-hill champ to resume his one-armed push-up regimen—the best Rocky comes up with is that there’s a “beast inside me” and, strangely, that “there’s still some stuff in the basement.” (I’m 98 percent sure he’s talking about a metaphorical basement here.)

Rocky gets his shot when a computer simulation suggests he would beat the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (pro boxer Antonio Tarver). A bunch of promoters think a match with Balboa would help boost Dixon’s tepid popularity. And…cue the training montage set to “Gonna Fly Now.” (Along with the one-armed push-ups, Rocky lifts chains, tosses a keg, and runs in the snow with his dog, Punchy.)

Throughout Rocky Balboa, our hero feels like an anachronism, a relic from a time when men were men and America cared about boxing. Meanwhile, the African-American Dixon is disdained by the world’s boxing fans because he’s a member of the hip-hop generation. The idea that we’re witnessing a battle between old-school and new-school values—and that we’re rooting for the old way—makes the climactic fight scene slightly discomfiting. It’s also painful to watch Stallone try to make the fight look artistic. (The worst transgression: a couple of black-and-white sequences in which the fighters ooze bright-red blood, à la Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City.)

Still, as per some fundamental law, it’s impossible not to get pumped up by a Rocky fight scene. When the music kicks in and the haymakers start to fly, it’s not important that Rocky Balboa is old and fat. All that matters is that a couple of guys are going to get hit with punches that could decapitate a horse. Hundreds and hundreds of times.CP