As evidenced by actors ranging from Al Pacino and Paul Newman to Morgan Freeman and Edward Norton, the thing that elevates a leading man to the level of cinematic legend is his onscreen resonance. Even in quieter performances, there's an explosive, emotional undercurrent hardwired into the lifeblood of brilliant performers that many aspire to, but few achieve.
Gene Hackman is an actor's actor. Referenced by members of the film industry in more interviews than I care to count, he's established a reputation as a hard working, underappreciated heavyweight that crafts each of his roles into a masterwork of layered realism and genuine soul. 'Hoosiers,' a spry granddad of the Inspirational Sports Flick genre, survives from scene to scene suspended on the shoulders of the unwavering Hackman.
This true-life tale focuses on high school basketball coach Norman Dale (Hackman), a man with a troubled past who sees an opportunity to steer his players away from the mistakes of his own life. From the beginning, it's clear that the new coach is different, perhaps even dangerous -- he's obsessed with characteristics other than raw talent, he angers his small town at every turn, and he hires a drunkard (Dennis Hopper) to help manage the team. But to everyone's surprise, his gruff tactics change the players into something more than anything anyone thought they could be. Based on an Indianan underdog champion from the '50s (Milan High School's "Hickory Huskers"), 'Hoosiers' is an effective period piece that explores athletic determination, inner motivation, and personal drive. While modern viewers may feel a sense of been-there-done-that lulling beneath the film's surface, they'll likely be captivated by the stellar performances and the inspiring story. Keep in mind, 'Hoosiers' is the reason many other recent movies like 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Gridiron Gang,' and 'Miracle' exist in the first place.
Like any good sports film, people who don't enjoy basketball will still find plenty to love here. It's not necessary to understand any more than the basics (ball, shoot, net, score, repeat) and 'Hoosiers' is thankfully more concerned with character development than anything else. Even when inspiration steps aside for a moment, the young actors seem natural, the rural townsfolk are authentic, and Hackman and Hopper create a subtle bond with real chemistry. Barbara Hershey and character actor Chelcie Ross bring grace and skill to their supporting roles, consistently striking more than one note. Even more importantly, the film's messages about discipline, fundamentals, and loyalty never feel forced or preachy. Hackman, too, storms across the screen with fiery intensity, but the film never feels stocky with overplayed sincerity. Instead, his down-to-earth performance grounds the story and keeps its audience invested in the team.
All of which is not to say that modern audiences won't have some problems with 'Hoosiers.' The biggest issues I had watching the movie in 2007 are the groan-inducing conventions that date the production -- an overproduced and synth-heavy soundtrack, occasional sappy dialogue that just doesn't fly anymore, and a few too many convenient Hollywood moments that feel more stagey than factual. Plus, to nitpick further -- the main theme (a David vs. Goliath struggle to overcome) has slightly less impact in light of the multitude of copycats that have oversaturated the genre in the last two decades, the romantic subplot seems distracting at times, and the uplifting ending is predictably procedural.
All in all though, 'Hoosiers' is a classic that easily earns its status as one of the better sports flicks of all time. As time passes, the argument over its timelessness will rage on. However, regardless of your fanaticism for basketball, you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you miss seeing this fine feature film.
Presented in 1080p utilizing the MPEG-2 codec, 'Hoosiers' again shows its age and could definitely benefit from a better restoratioin than it receives here. The picture quality isn't outright terrible - it just tended to pull me out of the film, rather than immersing me in the experience. Compared to the standard-def DVD, shadow detail has received a noticeable bump, improved depth extends the visual field across school parking lots and the court itself, fine detail reveals a welcome level of texturing in the image (especially visivle in skin and hair), and color vibrance has held up impressively.
Reds, yellows, and greens massage dark scenes with life, and highlight the strength of the cinematography. Within the first few minutes, watch as Hackman stares at trophies from the past in a hallway lushly illuminated by light streaming through a doorway. After that, find the moment when Hackman tries to talk to a stubborn teenager who is shooting hoops on a dirt court in the middle of an open field -- the green grass pops perfectly against the blue-hued clothing of the boy and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief in each shot that worked properly. If every scene in the movie looked like these, the transfer would be nothing short of revelatory for an older production presented with modern technology. Unfortunately, the overall picture quality doesn't have that kind of positive impact and certainly won't help the film win over any new fans.
From the beginning, the transfer showscases an overpowering layer of grain more than anything else. Whether looking at open expanses of sky or the smallest imperfection on an actor's face, people who enjoy a higher contrasted video setup will dive for the remote. I'm glad the transfer wasn't filtered and glossy -- I think the film stock texture is essential to the tone -- but in this case, the grain is so defined and so omnipresent that it seemed like an artificial effect modern films place over flashback or historical portions of their picture in post production. Source noise peppers each scene as well and I was surprised to see so many additional swarms of pixels on a disc that isn't packed with special features. While it wasn't as apparent as the thick grain, the pixilation was mixed in nonetheless and left static scenes stumbling in constant motion.
Beyond this, the contrast levels were often murky (just take a look at the nighttime bus ride where Hackman talks with the preacher's son), black level variance was almost non-existent, random softness was at odds with image detail (any scene in the team's pseudo-locker-room), the outer edges of close-ups were often faded compared to a bright and stable center (the meeting where the townsfolk begin to grill Hackman on his coaching experience), and the inconsistent video dipped every time the camera left the well lit sheen of the gymnasiums. Even the streaming video in the disc menus -- something I rarely feel the need to mention in reviews -- suggests people should avoid this release.
With that being said, as stated above, the film does look a tad bit better in certain respects than it does on standard DVD (although the grain is much more noticeable on Blu-ray) and is likely to be a tempting upgrade for fans. As a fan myself, I just can't help but feel disappointed because I wanted more than an increase in color and resolution -- I wanted a transfer that helped alleviate my fears that 'Hoosiers' is steadily becoming a poorly-aged classic whose status is becoming grounded in nostalgia rather than timelessness.
The odd audio packages on this release include a default lossless DTS 5.1 track (that only plays in a down-converted bitrate of 1.5 Mbps) and a bizarre Dolby Digital 4.0 surround mix that loses a lot of punch within its limited soundfield. Regardless of format, the soundscape dates itself with a flat, front heavy design that never completely crafts the illusion of three dimensional space. Sounds often seem more distant than the visuals would suggest, dialogue tromps along at uneven levels that crowd heavier conversations, and channel movement is only perceptible in a handful of scenes. Most disappointingly, the games themselves are robbed of the roar of the crowd and everything begins to feel more like a theatre production than a feature film. I understand that a lot of this has to do with the recording and design technology at the time, but the included tracks haven't been handled nearly as well as other films from the same era.
On the bright side, isolated conversations are crisp, ambient noise is frequent and convincing, and the sound design itself is usually well prioritized and doesn't leave dialogue buried beneath arena noise. I do feel the need to mention the soundtrack one last time -- aside from making a '50s period piece feel strangely reminiscent of the '80s, the music in this film will again likely be a turn-off for those viewing this film as anything more than nostalgia, as it tends to be intrusive, bringing a false sentimentality to character beats that the actors are clearly working hard to ground in reality. The composition and themes themselves are actually good, but the lack of real orchestration makes the music an uninvolving and unwelcome guest.
My entire experience with the Blu-ray edition of 'Hoosiers' kept going down hill. Despite the fact that the most recent DVD release of this title included an abundance of material (including a great commentary, deleted scenes, archive footage of the Huskers, and more), this single layer disc brings little additional value to the table. The original trailer for the film is included, but it's in terrible shape and laughable to watch. Hey, MGM and Fox -- is anyone over there interested in something other than cashing in on the classics? Especially considering the price of this Blu-ray release, we fans deserve more.
Between an absence of features, a lackluster video presentation, and an outright disappointment in the audio department, I can't find much of a reason to recommend this release to anyone other than absolute purists. You would do best to track down the recently released special edition DVD and really sink yourself into what it has to offer.
Looking at my scores for this release, I'm pretty upset. To be honest, I've always loved this film despite its aged missteps and it stirs genuine emotion somewhere deep inside my chest. To see it tossed onto a new format without much thought to expanding its audience makes me feel this classic is being disrespected by the very studios who push it as the best sports film of all time.