Obstacles are a big part of high school basketball coach Norman Dale’s life in “Hoosiers.” Played to the hilt by Gene Hackman, Dale is a man that sticks to his guns in 1951 Indiana. He ignores suggestions, boots interim coaches and rebellious players, hires the alcoholic Shooter (Dennis Hopper) as an assistant and refuses to beg moody protégé Jimmy (Maris Valainis) to play for his Hickory Huskers. Worse, Dale succeeds a beloved local coach who recently passed away, and the outsider’s meddling doesn’t sit well with the townspeople of the fictional Hickory. Dale gets the last laugh during an improbable run to the state championship game, and the coach instills the ultimate belief in the boys along the way: they can do anything together, as a team.
Newly available in a collector’s edition double-DVD from MGM, the 1986 film is rooted in one of the Hoosier State’s most savored basketball moments: the underdog Milan Indians’ upset of the Muncie Bearcats in the 1954 Indiana High School Championship game, where “Hoosiers” draws its climax. Only Indiana boys could make a movie like this, so it’s no surprise that director David Anspaugh hails from Decatur and writer Angelo Pizzo is a Bloomington native. Basketball is a religion in their home state, and “Hoosiers” has an air of respect for the game that other flicks never convey about a sport. A booming bounce of a basketball, sunlight streaming through windows and floors shining bright and squeaking loudly combine to make “Hoosiers” a church service, and they channel their home state’s legendary hoops fervor into a cinematic love letter. Thought the geographic tie with high school sports was done well enough in last year’s “Friday Night Lights”? Think again.
Quality family entertainment doesn’t get much better than “Hoosiers.” A good script helps, and nearly everyone delivers. Hackman, in a role originally intended for Jack Nicholson, fires on all cylinders as a coach who is as much in need of an internal confidence boost as his players. Nicholson wouldn’t have worked here, anyway. His larger-than-life persona doesn’t fit Dale, and Hackman, one of Hollywood’s hardest workers (banging out 40 movies in the last two decades), delivers lines like “God wants you on the floor” and “You’ll be sorry on the bench” more naturally than Jack ever could. His bench players are even better: Hopper had devolved into a drug-addled joke during the first half of the 1980s; spearheading one of the biggest comebacks in movie history, his portrayal of the self-destructive Shooter matched the intense Feck (in “The River’s Edge”) and psychotic Frank Booth (in “Blue Velvet) and earned him a supporting actor nomination.
The young Huskers’ lack of acting experience is a plus. None have much individual presence but there’s no time for it to develop. A team effort, the rookies pull it off to their benefit. Of the Huskers (Valainis, Scott Summers, Wade Schenck, David Neidorf, Brad Long, Steve Hollar, Brad Boyle and the late Kent Poole), over half never acted again and all except Valainis went the college basketball route. The team can be too generic – one’s short, another a dissenter, more have internal or parental problems, etc. That’s tolerable compared to Barbara Hershey, who is on the opposite end of the acting spectrum. Her Myra Fleener was clearly written into the script for a female lead. Come on guys, it’s a sports movie – there’s no time for girls! Fleener’s presence is tedious agony; she wanders through “Hoosiers” as out of place as John Rocker at a diversity seminar. Unless she’s keeping score or getting water, save her for “A League Of Their Own.”
MGM’s new package is a champ. The hi-def 16×9 transfer makes every inch of the Indiana countryside look killer, and its 5.1 surround sound is badass. The bonus disc is a sixth man that comes out of nowhere, adding the entire 40 minutes of the Milan/Muncie game. While a horribly bad ‘80s instrumental bookends the match and scratches run throughout, it’s something that only matters on DVD. “Hoosier History: The Truth Behind The Legend” is a new documentary that notably gets recent retirees Miller and Purdue University’s legendary basketball coach Gene Keady to comment on Indiana and the game of basketball. Current Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, ESPN’s Bill Simmons and players from the famous Milan and Muncie squads chat, too. Deleted scenes fill in some gaps, plus you can finally find out what happened to Buddy.
It’s typical that the Los Angeles Times, a publication in a city with the most famously indifferent fans, proclaimed “Hoosiers” as “the best sports movie ever made.” It’s not. That honor is saved for “The Pride Of The Yankees,” “Raging Bull,” “The Natural” or possibly the original version of “The Longest Yard.” The film is the best basketball film, almost making it forgivable that Pizzo and Anspaugh are IU alums. The pair recently collaborated on “The Game Of their Lives” and again mined Indiana sports history for 1993’s “Rudy” (which I refuse to watch until they make a John Wooden flick, out of respect for my Boilermakers). The Academy thought “Crocodile Dundee” was more deserving of a dark horse original screenplay nomination in 1986, but the duo’s first effort did get recognized at the Independent Spirit Awards and a decade later won them a special achievement award at the Heartland Film Festival. A wise decision, because “Hoosiers” has a lot of heart.