By John Saeger
Anyone who enters a Wawa in the Delaware Valley on a Monday after an Eagles game knows that Philadelphia values its sports teams. The city’s blue collar makeup and sports interests are a natural vehicle for storytelling. Whether it is about fictional characters, real life heroes, or the city’s manic passion, Philadelphia is its own sub-genre of sports movies.
Philadelphia Sports Movies
Philly is not the only city to inspire similar art. The Brooklyn Dodgers are a romantic symbol of the Fifties and shattered innocence. Until 2016, the Bleacher Bums of Chicago were viewed with pity by sports creatives. The most frequently discussed team in the cultural zeitgeist is the Boston Red Sox, whose local nine are the subjects of books from writers like David Halberstam and Stephen King.
The City of Brotherly Love does not inspire baseball fiction or hoop dreams. Boxing and football are the primary subjects of Philly sports movies. Rocky Balboa punching frozen meat or Vince Papale leaving it all on the gridiron is iconic cinema that the area embraces with gravitas.
Some of these movies are timeless classics. Tony Danza’s The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon is not one of them. The awful movie failed at every cliche in the book, but fortunately did not dissuade Creed and Silver Linings Playbook from taking place in the Delaware Valley. Thanks to those movies, Philadelphia has assembled a canon of heroes and villains that are now local folklore.
Doing the Most Around the Globe: The Phila Globe Guide to the Six Best Philadelphia Sports Movies Ever Made
1. Big Fan
Confession: sports talk radio is one of my guilty pleasures. Anyone who listens long enough starts to recognize certain callers. You either listen to Chuck’s take or flip the dial as soon as Dom from…. let me take you off speaker… Port Richmond calls in. Big Fan taps into the mania of fandom with an accuracy that is a little too real.
Big Fan is mostly a New York Giants movie, but the protagonist’s on-air rivalry with an Eagles fan gives it a touch of Philly. Unlike other flicks on this list, Philadelphia fans are the antagonist, but with a tone that we can all reluctantly acknowledge fits the give and take of local rivalries.
In the indie film, Patton Oswalt plays a parking garage attendant who lives with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz). Oswalt’s character attends Giants games by hanging around the stadium parking lot. His radio nemesis, Philadelphia Phil, is played with the appropriate amount of beer muscles by Michael Rappaport.
The film nails the feeling of a fan looking from the outside in on the supersized pro sports landscape. As much as an everyday fan yearns to participate in the tough world, Big Fan provides a dose of reality that shows how fandom can be taken to extremes.
Oswalt deserves recognition for a great performance that induces a tinge of empathy and sadness. Even though Big Fan did not do well in the box office, it is a movie Philadelphia sports lovers will find a little too relatable. Overall, it offers a lesson on keeping our passions grounded.
Vince Papale’s story is an easy Hollywood premise that is almost too good to be true. Except it is. Papale is an Eagles season ticket holder who tries out for, and makes, his childhood NFL team. While there are some tweaks to Papale’s life in the script of the 2006 film, Invincible deserves credit for turning the premise into a silver screen gold.
Perhaps this is me growing up in Philadelphia or a lifelong rooting interest in pro-Eagles stories, but Invincible is one of my favorite sports movies. It is not a classic like Raging Bull, but it is a solid film that is catnip for Birds fans. So many fans dream of running out on the gridiron (okay, maybe not the Veterans Stadium astroturf) and Papale’s story successfully taps into that fantasy.
Whether it is the totally believable overly enthusiastic tryout sequence starring Tony Luke Jr. or the give and take between Papale (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife-to-be Janet (Elizabeth Banks), Invincible relays the feeling of wearing your heart on your sleeve. It could only be set in a handful of dedicated sports towns, but this one happens to be Philadelphia and resonates as something a little extra especial.
I imagine that people from outside Philly view Invincible like college football fans view Rudy. Both are solid movies that are a little hokey, but carry more emotional weight if you are a Notre Dame or Eagles fan. The most heartstring-tugging moment of Invincible is the muddy touch football scene. The idea that someone is never too good to skip a rough touch game with his friends is an authentic Philly touch.
I have no idea why Warrior was not a bigger hit in the box office. The Gavin O’Connor film is a terrific movie about two estranged brothers who engage in Mixed Martial Arts. Despite a cast of then-rising stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, Warrior lost money in the box office and faded into obscurity.
The film did receive some awards attention. Nick Nolte was honored with a supporting actor nomination for his role as their recovering alcoholic father. That nom did not rescue a flick lost in the shadow off The Fighter, a similar story about a family dealing with addiction and estrangement that was released a year earlier.
Like The Fighter, Warrior endures as a story of characters facing internal and external conflict. Tom Hardy is fantastic as a brooding Marine on the run from a dark past. Edgerton is similarly captivating as a physics teacher who is fighting off the foreclosure of his family’s home.
The movie is set in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Atlantic City. Warrior uses these cities as more of a setting than a vehicle trying to soak up the local flavor. The blue collar backdrop, however, fits the story perfectly and enables the mood of its stars. Like The Big Fan, this one is an underrated gem worth checking out.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
Like Big Fan, Silver Linings Playbook is a movie that is more about sports fandom than sports. Out of all Philadelphia sports movies, this David O. Russell film might not reveal the best side of the Philly area. It does show a slice of life that is undeniably Philly and “Delco” (Delaware County). It also does not hurt that a Cowboys fan is the troll in the movie.
People in Philadelphia went crazy for Silver Lining Playbook and it is not hard to see why. When some of the biggest stars in Hollywood are sitting in Llanerch Diner or walking through a neighborhood in Delaware County, it is impossible not to get excited. It also shows everyday family struggles with a local backdrop.
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro are outstanding in this movie. There is a tangible chemistry between the actors that allowed the movie to click. The same plot could have been great with indie actors, but performers of that caliber flat out elevate any story.
Russell had a string of hits in the early part of the decade. Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, and American Hustle are some of the best films of that time period. Philly gets to claim one of them as their own.
Rocky is so intertwined with Philadelphia sports that it is hard to remember that its lead is a fictional character. Sylvester Stallone’s film owes much to Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic On The Waterfront. Rocky Balboa essentially reimagines what Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy might have been if he had a second chance. Both stories honor grit and the drive to be somebody.
Kazan’s character dwelled on how close he was to stardom. Balboa wanted to not be just another bum from the neighborhood. Both worked near the docks and fought inner demons. These motivations fueled Rocky’s training, allowing for an iconic workout montage to become iconic and staple of future films in the franchise. The hard work leading up to the fight is as satisfying to watch as the boxing itself.
This is a style that Philadelphia sports fans frequently relate to. Fans honor the hard work of their athletes and honest effort as much as the results. Whatever the unifying mindset was before Rocky hit theaters only solidified afterwards.
Philadelphia’s embrace for Rocky is tangible, but the reasons why the film struck a nerve are hard to quantify. Maybe it was that Stallone’s writing nailed the city or the mere fact that a local wrote a movie about Philadelphia? Regardless of the reason it is a multigenerational classic, Rocky is a beloved culture entity treasured by Philly.
See also: The Phila Globe spoke with Robert Schwartzman about his band Rooney, the remake of cult-classic movie RAD, and his thoughts on his mother, Talia Shire, playing the role of Rocky Balboa‘s love interest, Adrian Balboa.
Rocky is a classic. Later films in the Rocky franchise are either solid flicks or “meh.” As sacrilegious as this take is in Philadelphia, Creed is as good of a film as the original Rocky. The premise of the film sees an older Balboa take the son of Apollo Creed under his wing and tutor his growth as a man. Co-written and directed by the brilliant Ryan Coogler, the movie stars a tenacious Michael B. Jordan as the titular character.
The film is a testament to how modern technology can improve action scenes. The long take fight scenes are perfect action sequences. How the camera seamlessly weaves and bobs with the fighters is a creative choice that makes viewers feel like they are in the ring.
The fight sequences and Coogler’s exploration of Philadelphia gives a touch of realism that other boxing films do not utilize. There are few boxing movies with an African-American protagonist. Through the angle of Apollo’s son as the lead, Creed gives audiences a look at the city beyond Italian Stallion’s South Philly neighborhood.
It does not hurt that Jordan and Tessa Thompson are sensational in the movie. Watching the onscreen bond of Jordan, Thompson, and Stallone gives a proper Philly feel of unity that defines the best qualities of the City of Brotherly Love. The story and cinematography make it a Rocky of the modern era. Creed is a Philadelphia sports film that a new generation can call their own.
About the Author: John Saeger is a music and film writer from Philadelphia. Since 2017 he has been writing his pop-culture blog Long After Dark, a site dedicated to the arts in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond. Email/ Twitter