EDITORIAL: Lesser-known sports and betting movies worth checking out

(Image: pastposters.com)

(Image: pastposters.com)

Some of the best movies of all time have been sports related. From Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Oscar-winning classic Rocky to 2010’s acclaimed documentary Senna, there has been a steady stream of factual and fictional sporting stories told on the big screen over the years.

Some sports films depict acts of triumph over adversity, where mavericks and underdogs are the heroes, while others tell the story of sustained greatness over many years. There have been sporting dramas, sporting comedies, sporting romances and even animated sporting films and while most critics agree on the best of all time, there are always a few that slip under the radar. So here are a few sports films that you may not have seen but should definitely check out.

Breaking Away (1979)

They say that you should never meet your heroes and that rings true in this in this 1979 cycling-themed coming of age drama directed by Peter Yates.  The film’s young protagonist, Dave Stoller, develops an obsession with professional cycling after winning a Masi bicycle. Keen to emulate the very best cyclists from Italy, he immerses himself in Italian culture.

To him, the cycling, the music, the fashion and the language all go hand in hand and must be embraced in order to succeed. He even pretends to be an Italian exchange student in order to impress a girl. While his father is bemused by his son’s behavior, his mother indulges him by cooking Italian food at mealtimes.

Following an altercation with another group of boys, Dave is invited by the university president to take part in the Indiana University Little 500 bike race and is thrilled to discover a top Italian team will also be competing in the race. However, their dirty tactics during the race, which cause him to crash, leave him feeling deflated. After dedicating his time to worshiping these riders, he discovers that they are willing to cheat to win. After winning the Indiana University Little 500 bike race in dramatic style, Dave drops his obsession with all things Italian. However, the movie ends with Dave meeting a French student which prompts him to take a very keen interest in French cycling.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)

This Indian film tells the tale of Milkha Singh (a.k.a. The Flying Sikh) who survived the religious violence which resulted from the Partition of India in 1947 to go on to become an Olympic athlete. It covers the death of his parents and his time is refugee camps before charting his rise to sporting greatness via a spell in the military where his talent for running is first spotted.

The film teaches lessons about overcoming adversity and remaining focused on goals with the star himself often letting his concentration slip at crucial moments before responding in the most emphatic way. It also explores how those without the experience and resources of other professionals can still find a way to win.  The film received rave reviews from around the globe but is still relatively unknown outside of India. In English, the title translates to Run Milkha Run.

Bob le Flambeur (1956)

If you have ever been to a Vegas or enjoyed a wager at an online casino site such as those featured on Oddschecker, you will probably like this gambling-themed heist movie. This French film noir entry from 1956 follows the exploits of Bob Montagne, a gambling ex-con who lives a life of chance among the shadowy back streets of Paris. Bob loves to gamble on anything and everything and spends his days planning the next big payoff. Always close by is Paolo, the child of an old friend who Bob looks out for.

Down on his luck, Bob steps back into his criminal past by plotting a casino heist. The film follows the planning of the heist, the relationship between the perpetrators, and the risk and reward factor associated with such a venture.  There are twists, turns and a few surprises along the way in this excellently crafted movie. Ultimately, perhaps in reference to the games inside the casino, the character’s fate is decided more by chance rather than by skill.

Later, Director Jean-Pierre Melville gave the world Le Samourai a much better known film, but Bob le Flambeur offers a great entry point to his work covering the French underworld. Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet were all influenced by Melville’s films and the picture itself draws influences from the earlier Hollywood gangster flicks of the 1930s.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1994)

A film totally dedicated to chess may not sound like the most exciting premise ever (unless you are a huge chess fan) but the complex nature of the game and its players makes this an exhilarating experience.  The movie manages to capture the same kind of breathlessness often associated with films about more active pursuits. And when you discover it was directed by Steve Zaillian, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Schindler’s List, it is no surprise.  The film is based on the real-life story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin whose parents attempt to nurture his talent by linking him up with master tutor Bruce Pandolfini (played by Ben Kingsley).

Not impressed with his teacher’s brutal approach to the winning, Josh turns to streetwise speed chess expert Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) for help. Despite being a hustler, Vinnie helps Josh in his pursuit to win the right way and not at all costs. And that becomes the underlying message of the film.  The film looks amazing and the director brings real tension and emotion to a sport often overlooked due to its geeky nature.

Prefontaine (1997)

There haven’t been many films about running but this one starring Jared Leto is well worth a watch. The movie tells the real-life tale of Steve Prefontaine, a long-distance runner from Oregon, USA who dreams of winning Olympic gold.

The underrated picture should resonate with all movie fans, even if they have no interest in the sport. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of its 1970’s setting and the documentary-style adds to the authenticity. The film was written and directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame, so it is no surprise that it feels like a real-life chronicle.

Jared Leto is well-known for his method acting and here he gives one of the performances of his career. He is totally convincing as Prefontaine and the viewer is left compelled by the athlete’s dedication to the sport and the personal journey he takes to achieve his dream. Leto is aided by an excellent supporting cast who all conspire to create the illusion that this is a fly-on-the-wall account of the runner’s life. This only heightens the impact of the tragic ending.

A film about talent, youth, uncertainty, determination and character, Prefontaine reels the viewer in and makes them feel real empathy for the protagonist as he goes in search of a medal in the 1972 Olympics.  Less than a year after this film was released, another movie about Steve Prefontaine was released (a year earlier, the documentary Fire on the Track also told the runner’s story). It was titled Without Limits and starred Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland. Both movies are excellent in their own right and offer a different take on the story. But it is the documentary style and attention to detail of Steve James’ effort that just set this it apart.

Other notable movies:

Honorable mentions must also go to Lagaan (2001), a movie about an 1893 cricket match in India that was held to settle a tax dispute; Banchikwang (2000 a.k.a. The Foul King) about a bank clerk-turned-wrestler; and Offside (2006), a movie about an Iranian female soccer fan’s attempt to follow her team’s World Cup journey.