Everybody loves an underdog, but Philly sports fans seem to embrace them more than most. (A 58-year championship drought will do that.)
Which got us thinking: What are the greatest underdog movies of all time? You know the kind of movie. Everyone in the theater knows where it’s headed, yet you’re bear-hugging your knees down the homestretch, hoping the dream doesn’t die.
So after lots of discussion, we cut the contenders down to the best underdog movies of all time. Domestic box office totals mattered but weren’t the only deciding factor. Some of these movies, after all, only picked up momentum after they left the theater. And because “underdog” applies to more than sports alone, we considered any film that fit the profile, regardless of the context.
Cue the goosebumps.
10. Invincible (2006)
Thirty-year-old Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) emerges as a diamond in the rough during an open tryout in 1976 for the Eagles in a story that reads as way too good to be true. (But it isn’t.)
Box Office: $58 million
What the critics said: “Vince’s embittered dad, Frank (Kevin Conway), cautions against optimism. ‘A man can only take so much failure,’ he warns. Recognizing that the same is true of movie audiences, Disney piles on the uplift on and off the field. Yet Invincible counters its predictably inspirational trajectory with close attention to historical detail and blue-collar hardship.” (The New York Times)
9. Major League (1989)
In an effort to relocate the Cleveland Indians to Miami, the team’s new owner (Margaret Whitton) loads the roster up with losers and misfits, including ex-con Rick Vaughn, played by Charlie Sheen in maybe his last endearing role.
Box office: $50 million
What the critics said: “If there's any such thing as a written-in-stone rule in Hollywood, it's that a movie hit is a trend in itself. And, never one to let a trend pass it by, Paramount has moved its Bull Durham clone into the marketplace. Major League, written and directed by David Ward, is intended to be all the things Bull Durham was—hip, irreverent, sexy. It is none of the above.” (The Washington Post)
8. The Bad News Bears (1976)
Major League, basically, but with a roster of 12-year-olds. A drunk (Walter Matthau) takes over a hapless Little League team. Chaos ensues until their fiery new ace (Tatum O’Neal) takes the mound.
Box office: $32 million
What the critics said: “The Bad News Bears is intended as a comedy, and there are, to be sure, a lot of laughs in it. But it's something more, something deeper, than what it first appears to be. It's an unblinking, scathing look at competition in American society—and because the competitors in this case are Little Leaguers, the movie has passages that are very disturbing.” (Roger Ebert)
7. Miracle (2004)
Even if you’re not a hockey fan, you still likely know about the 1980 gold-medal game, where the Americans beat the Soviets in arguably the greatest upset in sports history. This is the story behind that team.
Box office: $64 million
What the critics said: “The new Disney movie Miracle may blatantly manipulate your emotions—but it's still inspirational and completely compelling.” (CNN)
6. Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
In outsmarting the jocks, Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and his band of dorks (sorry, nerds) impart a little confidence to everyone who doesn’t fit the Type A mold.
Box office: $41 million
What the critics said: “There's a little nerd, at least, in all of us and this identification factor will probably work for Fox's box office prospects. Revenge of the Nerds is primarily the story of outcasts getting their just rewards, and that is always a satisfying movie ingredient. Nonetheless, this scattergun, often scatological film is filled with extensive racial stereotypes, which may offend some moviegoers.” (The Hollywood Reporter)
5. The Karate Kid (1984)
Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is an outsider at his new, clique-y SoCal high school until he meets Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), a quiet old guy who teaches him a more compassionate kind of karate—which Daniel uses to kick butts.
Box office: $91 million
What the critics said: “I didn't want to see this movie. I took one look at the title and figured it was either (a) a sequel to Toenails of Vengeance, or (b) an adventure pitting Ricky Schroder against the Megaloth Man. I was completely wrong. The Karate Kid was one of the nice surprises of 1984—an exciting, sweet-tempered, heart-warming story with one of the most interesting friendships in a long time.” (Roger Ebert)
4. Unbreakable (2000)
Yes, a case could be made for describing most superheroes as underdogs. But we’re going with David Dunn (Bruce Willis) because he’s the least likely—and most resistant—candidate of the lot. Plus, it’s easy to see ourselves in him.
Box office: $95 million
What the critics said “This compelling conundrum of a film marks the maturity of Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan as a distinctive, even a remarkable film-maker. Every scene, every frame of this deeply strange and intriguing movie is permeated with a mood and a feel that the writer-producer-director effortlessly establishes as his signature. In some ways, Unbreakable is an unfinished, unrealized film, but it lingers potently in the mind for hours, and somehow without its flaws, eccentricities and longueurs it would not be the film it is.” (The Guardian)
3. Rudy (1993)
Five-foot-nothing Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin) dreams of playing football for his beloved Notre Dame, but everyone—including his own dad (Ned Beatty)—is ready to tell him why he never will.
Box office: $23 million
What the critics said: “Calling the plot of Rudy durable is like saying that Michael Jordan knows a thing or two about jumping. Sweet-natured and unsurprising, about as hard to resist (and as intellectually demanding) as an affectionate puppy, this is one of those Never Say Die, I Gotta Be Me, Somebody Up There Likes Me sports movies that no amount of cynicism can make much of a dent in.” (Los Angeles Times)
2. Hoosiers (1986)
A hot-tempered coach (Gene Hackman), an alcoholic assistant coach (Dennis Hopper), and an overachieving team all burdened by the beast of small-town expectations.
Box office: $28 million
What the critics said “What makes Hoosiers special is not its story, however, but its details and its characters. Angelo Pizzo, who wrote the original screenplay, knows small-town sports. He knows all about high school politics and how the school board and the parents' groups always think they know more about basketball than the coach does. He knows about gossip, scandal and vengeance. And he knows a lot about human nature. All of his knowledge, however, would be pointless without Hackman's great performance at the center of this movie.” (Roger Ebert)
1. Rocky (1976)
The small-time boxer (Sylvester Stallone) is plucked from anonymity (South Philly—our third Philly-based movie) to face heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), equal parts flash and phenom.
Box office: $117 million
What the critics said “There are ‘Marty’ overtones in abundance here, and that’s a strong commercial omen for the $1,000,000 gamble herein. The very best way to enjoy Rocky is not to examine it too carefully; better simply to relax and roll with the Walter Mitty, Cinderella, or what-have-you notion that the least of us still stands a chance of making it big.” (Variety)