I’m not sure if I'd go so far as to call a character like Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger a distinctly American protagonist, but tales of social underdogs overcoming all odds to accomplish their dreams are a definitive staple of our cinematic heritage. Although these inspirational characters have been overused, sentimentalized, and exploited time and time again to push gullible audiences to tears, a few notable underdogs have escaped such blatant commercialization and embedded themselves in our cultural consciousness. Ruettiger is a perfect example. Instead of capitalizing on the sappy aspects of Rudy’s life, ‘Hoosiers’ director David Anspaugh realized that the Notre Dame alum’s story was really about flawed humanity and dogged determination; not hollow victory and superficial pursuits.
At a mere 5’ 6” and 165 pounds, Daniel Ruettiger (Sean Astin) doesn’t look like a football player. Without a dime to his name or an impressive academic record in his pocket, Rudy doesn’t even have the means to get into Notre Dame, the university he’s dreamed of attending since he was a boy. However, what he does have is a singular drive to play football for the Fighting Irish. Ignoring his discouraging father (Ned Beatty) and leaving a dangerous job at a local steel mill behind, Rudy enrolls at a junior college in a last ditch effort to earn his way into Notre Dame. As fate would have it, in the last semester he’s eligible to transfer, the young dreamer is accepted to the acclaimed university. After convincing Notre Dame’s football coach (Jason Miller) to give him a spot on the practice unit, Rudy works to win the respect of his fellow players, the faith of a new head coach (Chelcie Ross), and the opportunity to play in an official game.
As far as classic sports films go, ’Rudy’ is easily one of the best I’ve ever seen. Like ‘Hoosiers,’ Anspaugh spends the majority of his time exploring the relationships and inner conflicts of his characters rather than the mechanics of the film’s central sport. Unlike ‘Hoosiers,’ ‘Rudy’ is a timeless, dare I say, masterpiece of the genre. The director nails the film’s setting and time period, offering dreary but realistic portrayals of mill life, paternal expectations, and the class struggles of the era. He presents Ruettiger as an Indiana everyman -- a local failure who, for all logical intents and purposes, should give up on his dream and settle for a more practical life. However, therein lies the genius of Anspaugh’s film. The simple fact that Rudy should toss his hands up makes his plight all the more compelling. Viewers begin to root for the guy because his willpower and resolve are so enviable. Whereas the rest of us shrug our shoulders and walk away from our dreams to sit in a cubicle, Ruettiger overcomes his self-doubt and the endless pressure of his peers to prove his worth.
It doesn’t hurt that Astin’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks charm transforms Rudy into the sort of fellow you’d love to have over for dinner. His portrayal of the character’s perseverance and emotional vulnerability never feels artificial or forced, but instead registers as completely authentic, making it a cinch to fall in love with the kid. As it stands, his performance is so convincing that it’s easy to forget you’re watching an actor. To top it all off, Astin is flanked by an incredibly talented cast that elevates every scene. Beatty, Miller, and Ross are astounding in their tonally divergent roles, and a slew of notable actors (including Jon Favreau, Lili Taylor, and Vince Vaughn) do a great job filling in the remaining gaps. Best of all, Charles S. Dutton pops up in a crucial, crossroads role in which he single-handedly injects an appropriate dose of gravitas and subtle authority into the film.
You don’t need to be a football fan to enjoy ‘Rudy.’ Its story doesn’t need to manipulate you to earn a well-deserved tear, its characters don’t have to yank on any heart strings to make you feel something, and its closing moments don’t have to try very hard to make you want to jump out of your seat and cheer. No, ‘Rudy’ is a breezy, effortless film that will win you over simply because it is beautifully written, wonderfully acted, and wholly engaging. If you’ve never had the opportunity to catch this fantastic genre pic, this Blu-ray release presents a perfect opportunity.
Despite a somewhat underwhelming print, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Rudy’ features a quality 1080p/AVC-encoded catalog transfer that offers a rewarding upgrade from the 2000 Special Edition DVD. While the palette itself is washed out, primaries are still stable, contrast is bright, and skintones are warm and natural. Black levels are a bit problematic at times, but the picture boasts an eye-pleasing, attractive quality that faithfully represents its filmic roots. Detail is impressive as well, revealing a variety of textures, stitching, stubble, and other elements that were formerly imperceptible on the muddy DVD. Better still, Sony has delivered yet another catalog transfer that doesn’t exhibit any significant artifacting, crushing, edge enhancement, or meddling DNR. The grain field occasionally spikes and a handful of shots look softer than others, but the overall image is in respectable condition.
All in all, ‘Rudy’ may not outclass the best catalog transfers on the market, but it does offer fans a solid high-def presentation and a noticeable improvement over the DVD.
Likewise, ‘Rudy’s Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track can’t compete with more bombastic lossless audio experiences, but it still does a fine job representing the film’s intentionally subdued sound design. While I don’t mean to imply that the soundscape is weak or underwhelming, it also doesn’t offer audiophiles a lot to get excited about. There are a few sonic-standouts here and there -- the rear speakers pipe up during mill scenes and football sequences, the LFE channel naturally enhances heavy machinery and rough tackles, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is nicely distributed across the soundfield -- but, for the most part, the film is heavy on conversations and light on movement, action, and aggression. Thankfully, dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, pans and directionality are decent, and the mix doesn’t suffer from any hissing, pops, or distracting source issues. Fans of the film should be more than pleased with the results.
While the Blu-ray edition of ‘Rudy’ includes the same supplemental content as its DVD counterpart, the disc’s producers have really (ugh… pardon the pun) dropped the ball by failing to capitalize on the involvement of the man himself. Sure, there’s an interview, but where’s the commentary? The expansive documentary? The thorough investigation into the inspiration behind the entire film?
’Rudy’ is a surprising breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by clichés and sappy sentimentality. Even after fifteen years, the film doesn’t feel dated, irrelevant, or lacking in any way. To my relief, Sony’s BD release handles the film’s presentation with care and respect. While by no means a knockout, the disc still offers a faithful video transfer, a technically proficient lossless track, and a worthwhile upgrade from the standard DVD. The only disappointing aspect of this release is that its special features are practically non-existent. This one may have only earned an overall average of three stars, but it’s still worth a solid recommendation in my book.