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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Those hoping for a splashy redo of 'Hoosiers' for its 25th birthday will be sorely disappointed. While we do get a new video encode (upgraded from MPEG-2 to AVC MPEG-4) - more on that below - the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track remains the same. No special digibook or gussied up packaging either. New cover art is about all we get. The disc sits snugly inside a standard case, and once inserted into the player, the movie immediately begins playing. There are no previews or promos, and there is no main menu. Chaptering, set-up options, and special features all must be accessed from a pop-up menu during the film.
The first Blu-ray incarnation of 'Hoosiers' left a lot to be desired from a video standpoint, and this anniversary edition is only marginally better. The codec has been bumped up from MPEG-2 to AVC MPEG-4, which doesn't alter the image dramatically, but lends a slightly smoother feel to the presentation. Grain is still present - sometimes omnipresent, as levels still fluctuate wildly, but the transfer possesses a decidedly filmic look that suits this period sports flick well. The source material isn't pristine, but looks a tad cleaner this time around, with a minimum of marks and specks dotting the picture.
The lushness of the cinematography still shines through, thanks to the lovely glows of reds, yellows, and greens in uniforms, clothing, and landscapes. Solid but not severe contrast punches up the picture, subtly integrating the various visual elements. Scuff marks on the gym floor and creases and weathering on Hackman's leather jacket are well defined, but background details are often fuzzy, especially during grainier scenes. Black levels are strong and shadow detail is good, while fleshtones occasionally lean toward the rosy side. Close-ups vary from pleasingly crisp to softly diffused, and the artifacts that plagued the previous release are vastly diminished.
This is by no means a poor transfer, but we're still waiting for the full-fledged restoration that 'Hoosiers' needs and deserves. This is certainly the best 'Hoosiers' has ever looked on a home video format; it's just not good enough for the discriminating eyes of fans and critics alike. Though there's not a whole lot to complain about here, there's also not a whole lot to cheer about either. And for a movie in which cheering plays such a vital role, that's a shame.
The same audio package that graced the 2007 Blu-ray is included on this disc. Here's what Ken Brown had to say about it five years ago...
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.
Unlike the previous bare-bones Blu-ray edition of 'Hoosiers,' this 25th anniversary release puts all the DVD extras on the disc, at last giving high-def fans a complete supplemental package. It's a shame no new material was produced for this celebratory double-dip, but that's the way the (basket)ball bounces, I guess.
'Hoosiers' doesn't quite receive the makeover it deserves on its 25th anniversary (digibook packaging would have been a nice celebratory touch), but the improvements are noteworthy enough to merit a double-dip for those who still consider this uplifting, heartwarming basketball drama one of the best sports movies ever made. The so-so audio remains the same, but slightly upgraded video irons out some of the kinks that plagued the previous Blu-ray release, and the inclusion of the supplemental package that graced the DVD is a welcome and necessary addition. Though 'Hoosiers' has begun to show its age, with regard to both narrative and style, it's still a special film, and if you've never seen or owned it before, this is certainly the edition to pick up. Recommended.