“SPIRIT OF THE GAME” — 1½ stars — Kevin Sorbo, Aaron Jakubenko, Wade Briggs; PG (mild thematic elements); in general release
Early in "Spirit of the Game," the film's protagonist is on his way to his LDS mission in Australia when he runs into Elder John Groberg, en route to Tonga. It's a sly nod to 2001's "The Other Side of Heaven," one of the better mission-themed movies from a genre that started about 15 years ago.
But unlike "Other Side of Heaven," which was a kind of romantic Pacific Ocean adventure, "Spirit of the Game" aspires to be a hybrid of "God's Army" and "Hoosiers.” It's based on the true story of the Mormon Yankees, a team of Australia-based missionaries who scrimmaged an assortment of international Olympic basketball squads back in the 1950s.
The team's leader is Delyle Condie (Aaron Jakubenko), the aforementioned protagonist who ditches a collegiate basketball career at the University of Utah to serve a mission after his fiancée Emily (Emilie Cocquerel) ditches him for a tall, dark stranger. Despite the support of his father (Kevin Sorbo), Elder Condie's pensive resolve is tested in Australia, as he quickly discovers that the people of Melbourne have little interest in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
But opportunity arrives in the form of Ken Watson (Grant Piro), the beleaguered coach of the Australian national basketball team. Watson's team needs serious help, and he has a hunch that the experienced Americans knocking doors in his neighborhood might hold the solution.
It takes a while for Elder Condie to convince President Bingham (Mark Mitchell) that playing basketball will open doors to more traditional missionary work, but eventually a team is drafted from the more experienced elders around the mission. The newly dubbed "Mormon Yankees" start off by scrimmaging the Australian team, then eventually begin playing other squads — including a team of convicts — on their way to a climactic clash with the French national team.
The reality of a bunch of missionaries competing against Olympic-caliber squads is almost too absurd to believe, and it tells you plenty about the era. But "Spirit of the Game" fails to fully realize this, focusing instead on a spiritual underdog tone that is undermined by poor execution.
Sadly, "Spirit of the Game" is frequently undone by stiff acting and troubled storytelling. Many of the key supporting roles feel overcooked, like placeholder obstacles rather than fully formed characters, and though the film gets better as it moves along, the finale against the French team runs into substantial narrative trouble.
Little details frequently take the viewer out of the experience, like the sinister clichéd mustaches that distinguish the French players, or the fact that the game against the convicts seems to be played on an 8-foot basket, which seems especially odd when someone soars over the rim and elects to go for a layup.
Piro is a highlight as Watson, and the story itself is compelling. But as a submission to the Mormon missionary movie genre, "Spirit of the Game" fails to compete with the best entries of the field, and a repeat viewing of "Other Side of Heaven" may prove to be a better value of both time and money.
“Spirit of the Games” is rated PG for mild thematic elements; running time: 112 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.