Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Just wait ’til next year: 8 non-champion cinematic underdogs

Illustration for article titled Just wait ’til next year: 8 non-champion cinematic underdogs

The A.V. Club’s offices are located in Chicago, where we are regularly pummeled with fanciful local sports dreams, only to (usually) face devastation at the end—give or take a recent hockey team. Currently our beloved North Side Cubs are in a post-season series, trying to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945—and for their first World Championship since 1908. And so far, these Cubs look promising, as they just defeated their division rivals the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to the National League Championship Series. While we’d like to get riled up for it, we’ve been optimistic post-season before—most recently, in 1998, 2007, 2008, and 2003, the year of the Bartman. So to help steel ourselves for the possible looming disappointment, we offer the below list of other underdogs who choked when it came to the big game (or match, or race). Some of them, it should be noted, bounced back in subsequent sequels. So maybe this will finally be the Cubs’ big year. For Chicago sports fans, there’s always hope.

1. Little Big League (1994)

It makes sense that the Minnesota Twins don’t win the World Series at the end of Little Big League: In the year of the film’s release, a Major League Baseball Players Association strike canceled the Fall Classic outright, a first since 1904. Extraordinary circumstances, but not as wild as those chronicled in Little Big League, which finds 12-year-­old Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards) inheriting the Twins from his late grandfather and appointing himself manager of the flailing franchise. Pursuing the radical philosophy that baseball should be fun, Billy helps the ballplayers find their inner children and their outer winners, sacrificing some of his own innocence along the way. (On a road trip, the prepubescent owner-manager rents the tellingly titled Night Nurses From Jersey 11 times.) But the most important coming­-of-­age lesson Billy learns during his time in the dugout revolves around the nature of victory and the inevitability of defeat. The Twinkies and the kid drag themselves out of the basement and into the American League Wild Card Game (an addition to the MLB playoff schedule that would’ve been introduced in 1994 if, well, you know…), where they face off against Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and the Seattle Mariners squad that took the AL West the following season. Griffey’s Gold Glove ends Minnesota’s season, and Billy steps down as manager, but the fictional preteen can take some cold comfort from the real-­life record books: Ken Griffey Jr. spent 22 years in the majors and never made it to a World Series. [Erik Adams]


2. Rocky (1976)

Rocky Balboa is the ultimate underdog, a lovable lunk whose only dose of good luck leads him to a shot at the championship against the risible, arrogant Apollo Creed. But in spite of what seems like a celebration at the end of the original film—“Adrian! Adrian!”—Rocky actually loses the fight, in a split decision. But all he really wanted to do was go the distance with Creed, to prove to his city, his girlfriend’s brother, and his own trainer that he’s not a bum. His later films would lower Sylvester Stallone’s reputation considerably, which also makes it easy to forget that he wrote Rocky, and was nominated for an Oscar both for that, and for his performance. (He didn’t win that, either, though the film itself did win Best Picture.) The character would return for increasingly cartoonish films in which he actually did win fights, though presumably he’ll be too old to box in the upcoming Creed. (He’ll play trainer to Creed’s son, played by Michael B. Jordan.) [Josh Modell]

3. Real Steel (2011)

Set in the near future, Real Steel is like a robotic Rocky, with many similarities, as an underdog boxing robot gets a shot at the championship. Real Steel features lowlife boxing promoter Charlie (Hugh Jackman) and Max, the son he barely knows, engaging in the underground world of fighting robots over the course of a summer. If you don’t predict that the father and son are going to bond over the building of robots, or that the boy and the robot will forge a relationship as endearing as the one in The Iron Giant, you may never have seen a movie before. The pair take Atom, their renegade robot, through a variety of sketchy underground boxing matches helmed by apocalyptic-style punkers and backed by metal (ha) music. The menacing rock ’em, sock ’em robots’ bouts are more impressively destructive than bloody ones like Rocky’s (see above); Sugar Ray Leonard himself helped choreograph the robotic boxing. And just like with the Italian Stallion, Atom eventually takes on reigning champion Zeus, where he is clearly outsized and outmatched, and he loses in a split decision after a spirited bout. But Atom is crowned the “People’s Champion,” and isn’t that what’s more important? No? [Gwen Ihnat]


4. Cool Runnings (1993)

Based loosely on Jamaica’s appearance at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Cool Runnings tells the tale of a group of sprinters who, after failing to qualify for the summer games, shift their focus to bobsledding. After a series of follies, the team eventually qualifies for the Olympics, and under the watchful guidance of their coach Irv Blitzer (John Candy), the Jamaican bobsled team begins looking like a real contender. True to life, the Jamaicans fail to win a medal, with a disastrous wreck dashing their hopes of draping a gold medal around their necks. Though there’s still glory to be found for the team, as they pick up their rickety, old sled and carry it across the finish line, with their rivals and well-wishers cheering them on in equal measure. [David Anthony]


5. Moneyball (2011)

The Oakland A’s actually have a pretty good record overall; they trail only the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals in World Series titles. But the 2002 Oakland A’s we see in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball are strapped for talent and cash—having just choked in the postseason, they’re also about to lose three of their best players. And their general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), has to find a way to fuel division-title dreams with a minor league budget. Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale econ grad and sabermetrics disciple, who convinces Beane to ditch his scouts’ gut feelings to rely on players’ on-base percentage. Beane and Brand soon assemble a team of “misfit toys,” including a submarine pitcher (Casey Bond) and an injured catcher (Chris Pratt). Everyone, including the team manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), doubts the new strategy until the A’s go on a record-tying (in the American League), 20-game winning streak. The movie ends before the A’s lose again in the postseason, so we’re spared watching it all go to hell. But we do learn that Beane’s model was here to stay, eventually helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series. [Danette Chavez]


6. The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962)

The movie opens with Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) narrating a run through the words, describing his family’s history for running away from its problems, which include trouble with the law. Colin seems doomed to the same fate—the teen is sent to a Borstal (basically, a prison school) run by the “Governor.” But the titular exercise offers Colin a means of temporary escape from his toiling—at first figuratively and later, literally, as the Governor allows him to run alone on the school’s grounds. It’s part of Colin’s training for a five-mile race against a nearby school with posh pupils; the Governor believes a victory in the race will demonstrate the success of his “work will make you free” program. Colin is well on his way to winning the climactic race, but flashbacks to his troubled home, father’s death, and the crime that led to his incarceration remind him that he’s just on a longer leash than his fellow inmates. So he stops short of the finish line, allowing his competitors to run past him while the spectators stare and scream at him in disbelief. [Danette Chavez]


7. The Bad News Bears (1976)

The Bad News Bears ostensibly appeared to be about an underdog kids’ baseball team, but it was really a deft commentary on who the sport is really for—the kids or the adults. Reigning league champs the Yankees have a no-nonsense coach who backhands his kid on the pitcher’s mound, while the Bears are such bad players no other team even wants to play them. Enter alcoholic Coach Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), who molds the team into a winning effort with the help of a then-revolutionary girl pitcher (Tatum O’Neal, coming off her Oscar win for Paper Moon) and delinquent cleanup hitter Kelly Leak (future Rorschach Jackie Earle Haley). But turning the last-place team into champions would have been a bit much even for this feel-good effort. The Bears lose in the finals as Kelly tries to win the game with an inside-the-park homer, and gets tagged out. The Bears’ loss was a solid, realistic call by screenwriter Bill Lancaster (son of Burt), because winning wasn’t really what baseball was about for the kids. As Toby Whitewood tells Buttermaker in the final game, “We just want to play, Coach.” So the second-place Bears have their own celebration, tossing their dinky trophy and dumping beers from Buttermaker’s cooler on each other’s heads. And they were bound to have a much more successful outing in the following year’s The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training. [Gwen Ihnat]


8. Tin Cup (1996)

Sometimes the message of an underdog story seems to be that there’s a good reason someone isn’t on top—namely, that they don’t deserve to be in first place. Tin Cup is just such a narrative, the story of former pro golfer Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner), a great golfer whose shitty attitude and rebellious streak cost him his career. Years later, McAvoy is a golf instructor, falling in love with his new student Molly (Rene Russo), a woman who happens to be dating PGA star and McAvoy’s old rival David Simms. After re-entering the U.S. Open in an effort to regain his reputation and prove his worth, a final Championship showdown pits Simms and McAvoy against one another (and real-life pro Peter Jacobsen), as you always knew it would. But rather than fall victim to a water hazard, Simms takes a safety shot, while McAvoy, insisting he can make the original shot and beat Simms, gives it a try—and fails. Then he tries again—and still fails. His stubbornness costs him the trophy, but after finally sinking his 12th and final ball, a celebratory Molly tells him no one will care who won in a few years, but they’ll remember his stubborn 12 shots. The moral seems to be that it’s good to be a pigheaded, arrogant dummy, because being notorious is better than being successful. Wonder what Pete Rose would have to say about that. [Alex McCown]


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