The underdogs, the top dogs, the challengers, and the champions. All of these are personas that are part of a character that wows us in a sports film. There's a quote from a movie starring George Clooney called Up in the Air that goes like this: "Kids look up to athletes because they chase their dreams". And it's true either in life or on the big screen. The sports film genre is full of characters that have uplifted us in our times of strife, and we are forever grateful for these moments in cinema.
What makes a great performance in a sports film? Is it the fact that the character is victorious in the end? Are they identical in the mannerisms of the real-life person they're playing? Do they create an intimidating opponent for the film's hero? Or are they defeated in the end, but they still continue to move forward towards victory? All of those descriptions make up this list, as all of them are the definitive sports figures in a movie.
15 Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago - Rocky IV (1985)
His dialogue is very little, but his emotionless facial expressions say wonders. At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone would direct the fourth installment of the Rocky franchise, Rocky IV. The Italian Stallion would match up in a revenge fight against the indestructible Russian boxer Ivan Drago. Played by Dolph Lundgren in one of his earliest roles, Drago is a buy the books' countryman who believes that "if he dies, he dies". Rocky had some worthy adversaries, but maybe the most intimidating hands-down has to be Drago.
This was one of those climactic fights where you weren't sure if Rocky would make it through this one. Lundgren would go on to star in many action films in the decade to come. He would even reprise his role in Creed II as his son's trainer, who was going to match up against Adonis Creed. But it was this first performance that left us in awe of his acting talents. You still can't thwart off the chill that runs up your spine when he looks Rocky in the eyes and says, "I must break you".
14 James Van Der Beek as Mox - Varsity Blues (1999)
There could not have been a better role for someone like James Van Der Beek as Mox in 1999's Varsity Blues. A film that is a time capsule of high school life in the later part of the decade, and also about real-life decisions being made by young kids who are local celebrities in their small Texas town. Van Der Beek plays Mox, a backup quarterback who's just trying to ride out his senior year behind star player Lance Harbor (Paul Walker).
Once Lance gets a season-ending injury, it's up to Mox to step up to the plate. Mox never feels like a jock who runs the hallways of the school he plays for, and that's what makes you root for him to lead the Coyotes to a state championship. It's an unforgettable performance in a film that doubles as both a sports film and a coming-of-age comedy-drama.
13 Paul Newman as Reggie Dunlop - Slap Shot (1977)
Slap Shot is the quintessential hockey film. There are not many movies that take place within the sport. So, of course, you cast one of the greatest actors of all time in it, Paul Newman, to be in it. A comedy about a failing New England minor league hockey team that is playing its last season begins to draw a crowd as the team's player and coach, Reggie Dunlop, utilizes a more violent style of play. Dunlop recruits the Hanson brothers to his team to help with the brawling on the ice, and the crowds begin to grow and grow.
Newmanhas done films that have stood the test of time already and will continue to, and if he didn't do Slap Shot, who knows what would have happened to it? You can tell he gets the humor and themes of the film, and it never feels like he's doing it for a paycheck or to keep his star on the rise. He blends into this world and makes it another film, adding to his iconic filmography. He has also gone on record saying that Slap Shot was the most fun he'd ever had making a movie.
12 Al Pacino as Coach Tony D'Amato - Any Given Sunday (1999)
By 1999, Al Pacino had about 30 years in front of the camera and a slew of iconic performances under his belt. In Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, he plays the head coach of the fictional Miami Sharks. He brings his intensity to a star-studded cast of actors that is nearly endless. D'Amato is a character who seems to be losing his stride in the world of professional sports. His team is no longer a championship contender; he's clashing with ownership. And his marriage is falling apart, and he never sees his kids.
You feel the character being very burned out in most of his scenes. However, at halftime of a must-win game to reach the playoffs, D'Amato gives a motivational speech that echoes into the souls of anyone who's enduring hardships. It's not done in the cheesy kind of way we've seen in failed attempts at it; it's done with grit and a realistic approach to what life throws at you. And it is still one of the best motivational moments in cinema history that will make a viewer want to run through a brick wall.
11 Kevin Costner as Crash Davis - Bull Durham (1988)
Kevin Costner plays veteran catcher Crash Davis, who takes new recruit pitcher Ebby Clavin Laloosh (Tim Robbins) under his wing in Bull Durham. The movie takes place in Durham, North Carolina, and centers around the town's minor league team, the Durham Bulls. What's so compelling about Kevin Costner in this film? It is one of the few roles where you get to see Costner play against type. He's always kind of been America's dad in most roles. Either on Yellowstone or in Man of Steel, he always fits the bill of a man with strong principles that reflect the environment he lives in.
Bull Durham shows him playing more of a carefree, comical role that has more of an exploration of masculinity. Crash is also slightly immature, and we don't get that out of the usual Costner role. There are a lot of great elements in the film that support those character traits, whether it is the plot or Susan Sarandon's performance as the team's groupie, Annie. Or the fact that Crash knows he won't ever make it in the pros, and he's an aging athlete. It's a brilliant character with a lot of depth for a comedy.
10 Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed - Creed, II, III
Spanning three films now, Michael B. Jordan has delivered an unforgettable performance as Adonis Creed, the son of heavyweight champ Apollo Creed from the Rocky films. The Creed movies are a brilliant spinoff from the Rocky films that tie everything together well. Michael B. Jordan has been so great in these films that he has now been given the same treatment Stallone did with Rocky. He got to direct the franchise's third installment, which was released this past year.
Thus, it shows its talent range quite well in front of and behind the camera. Another commitment he has to the character is his strong physical appearance. Jordan would train three to four times a day with cardio, boxing, and lifting while preparing for the film. That is a serious commitment to the craft.
9 Brad Pitt as Billy Beane - Moneyball (2011)
Let's move to a different kind of sports film now. Moneyball earned Brad Pitt an Oscar nomination for his efforts playing real-life Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane. The film is adapted from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It's about Beane's epiphany that some of the ideology of baseball in current times isn't working anymore. He clashes with old-school scouts and ends up building a team of bargain-bin players who can get on base in order to go toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the league, and in true underdog fashion, it starts to work.
The film takes place during the 2002 season, as the A's went from obscurity to title contenders but fell short. And once Beane's methods get out to other general managers, they begin to follow suit. Pitt is at his best in the movie, as he maintains a positive attitude in the role, and yet you feel his mental obstacles in the characters private moments. A movie that edits in radio calls and actual footage masterfully. It's an underdog story, but in this situation, rather than rooting for the players, you're rooting for the outcast front office members.
8 Geena Davis as Dottie Hinson - A League of Their Own (1992)
There are plenty of female-driven sports films out there and great roles within them. But ask yourself: do they top Geena Davis in A League of Their Own? Playing the role of farm girl Dottie Henson, who gets a shot to play in the women's professional baseball league during World War II. Hinson is played as a humble team player by Davis. The best of the best that never brags about it. She's a woman who would also give it all up to be with her husband when he gets back from the war. And she does, as she only plays one season before calling it quits.
Thus making her one of the best in the sport who knew to leave on top. The film is highly fictionalized and yet drawn from an actual event in America, but boy does it capture how life seemed to be in during World War II here in the States. The set design, the swinging 1940s music for the score, and Davis being an absolute star at this time helped launch this film into the stratosphere, where it still sits today.
7 Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed - The Rocky Franchise
A worthy adversary to Rocky in the franchise's first two films, he then returns in Rocky III to become Balboa's trainer, only to meet his sad demise in Rocky IV at the hands of Ivan Drago. Carl Weathers contribution to the Rocky movies, and even the Creed films through archival footage that Adonis watches, is highly regarded. Weathers never really got any massive awards for the role, but he has received praise from fans.
Creed's character arc of going from Rocky foe to friend tracks beautifully. He's a bit of an arrogant showman, but he's also a highly likable character. Stallone has stated that he was loosely inspired by the likes of the great boxers of the era when writing the character. Creed is a combination of Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson.
6 Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan - A League of Their Own (1992)
Not to take a single thing away from Geena Davis, but Tom Hanks kind of steals this movie. It's the early 1990s, and Hanks is very much on the rise. It's hard to pinpoint where you can see what makes him a great dramatic actor, but there has to be a case that it's his role as the fictional baseball coach Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own. Hanks comedic talent is on full display here, with unforgettable lines like, "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like a penis with a hat on?" and the iconic rant of "There's no crying in baseball!"
His chemistry with his predominately all female-cast without there being some sort of romance involved makes the film so much more special. He fits into the world of old-time baseball. Like a player ripped right out of black-and-white footage of a game. It was after this film that Hank's career in more serious movies began to take off, and rightfully so.
5 Christian Bale as Dickie Eklund - The Fighter (2010)
Christian Bale would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in David O'Russel's film, The Fighter. Boxing movies are hard to come by. You know what you're going to get with them. An underdog story or a champion who gets knocked down but makes his way back to a title fight. The Fighter is a little bit of that, but it's not the whole thing. Bale plays the biographical role of Dickie Eklund in The Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. A former boxer who once got in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard, but we meet him during a low point in his life.
He's a drug addict who's doing a bad job hiding it from his family, who ignore the issue. The Fighter is a tale of two brothers. Eklund and his half brother Mickey Ward (Mark Whalberg) clash at times, but both are in sync as trainers and boxers. Bales performance is incredible in The Fighter. It's comical at times, with scene-stealing moments with the rest of his co-stars, yet it never feels run-of-the-mill of some burnt-out former boxer who got hooked on drugs. Bale plays the role with merit and respect, as he also got to know the real-life Eklund during filming.
4 Will Smith as Muhammad Ali - Ali (2001)
By 2001, it was time for Will Smith to step into more dramatic performances and shake off his blockbuster comical roles. A biopic was a perfect fit for a situation like that. Enter director Michael Mann, and the film is about the life and career of Muhammad Ali, in 2001's Ali. Receiving his first ever Oscar nomination for lead actor, Smith proves that despite the recent polarizing events that surround him right now, he indeed is not just a blockbuster name; he's a real actor. Playing the role of one of the greatest athletes of all time is a hard thing to do.
Muhammad Ali is one and a million; you don't just mirror his appearance. Smith's efforts in the film are valid. He has his mannerisms down perfectly. The public always saw the trash talking; we never got to see Ali behind closed doors, and Smith guides us beautifully into what he was like away from the cameras. It also helps that the film is in the hands of a master like Michael Mann, who gives Smith a big sandbox to play in within the movie.
3 Denzel Washington as Herman Boone - Remember the Titans (2000)
The list of films that have a theme of overcoming internal prejudices and racist beliefs to bridge the gap between white and Black people is few and far between. Some try and fail with mundane surface-level discussions on race in the material. But then you have Remember the Titans, the true story about a Virginia high school that integrates Black and white students onto a football team and has a new coach named Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), a Black man who is met with racist backlash from the community.
It is the unifying message of building a successful high school football team, no matter what the background or race of the players may be, that helps promote the idea of acceptance of one another. Washington's performance makes you want to put on pads and go play football for him. He motivates these kids to be a team. There is scene after scene of touching moments. His speech at Gettysburg to his players about coming together touches the soul; it is one of the best performances of an actor playing an athletic coach ever to grace the screen.
2 Sean Astin as Rudy - Rudy (1993)
Rudy features scene after scene of heartwarming, tear-jerking moments that make you want to get up and go chase your dreams. Sean Astin has never failed us in a movie. He definitely doesn't here, with this film being the true account of Notre Dame walk-on football player Rudy Ruttiger. A young man, against all odds presented to him, makes it onto the team of the most prestigious football program in the country. His family didn't think he could do it, his coaches thought he had no athletic ability, and even when he wanted to quit, he didn't.
He showed up and got to dress for the final game of his senior year at Notre Dame. The film culminates with a chant in the stadium to have Rudy put in the game, and he is. The kid with the most heart out of anyone on the team plays one play and sacks the quarterback. And what would be perceived as a meaningless play ends up being an uplifting moment. Rudy is lifted by his teammates, and a Jerry Goldsmith score takes over the film as he is carried off the field. Moments like this are what make Rudy one of the best football films of all time.
1 Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa - Rocky (1976)
When you think of American sports movies and the underdog story, you think of Rocky. The film isn't just a prestigious piece of American cinema; it's the story of the American dream for its star, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone most likely lived out the themes and feelings that the movie's protagonist feels and expresses. There isn't a bad scene in Rocky. In fact, it's a perfect film, with one iconic moment after another. We've rooted for characters before Rocky, but not as passionately. Stallone's simple-minded performance is identifiable to any down and outer. It touches the heart of the underdog in all of us.
And yet, it's not the jogging up the stairs' moment in the movie or the end of the fight when Rocky embraces Adrian that hits a chord with audiences; it's actually a scene that was nearly cut from the movie during production. The scene where Rocky lays in bed with Adrian and admits that he knows he's going to lose to Apollo, but if he can go the distance and make it through the fight, then in his mind he's won. Because life is about endurance, not winning and losing. That is the core message as to why we all love Rocky.