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Why 'Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit' is one of the best 90s sports movies

Sports movies were a quintessential part of the movie theater experience during my childhood, every bit as much as action movies or summer blockbusters, and the early 90s were the absolute heyday of the genre.

The summer of 1993 gave us both “Rookie of the Year” and “The Sandlot” — two classics embedded into the very fabric of our generation’s culture and even today are referenced by Gen-Zers who have never seen them. But it was one sports film in particular that year that snuck into hearts, minds and cinemas and has stuck with me every bit as much as those baseball-centric classics.

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. You heard me.

Yes, this movie is a sequel to a musical comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg about a Las Vegas showgirl who poses as a Catholic nun while hiding from the mob. It is also, in every single way that matters, a sports movie, and in my opinion one of the very best examples of the genre. Not convinced? Join me as I walk you through a play-by-play of this all-time classic.

The Setup

Like many great sports movies, our story begins with a star player at the peak of her career, in this case Deloris (Goldberg), who is a headliner in her own Vegas stage show. She’s absolutely killing it, the fans are eating it up, and she has the clout to tell her goofy agent to shut up when he advises her to do anything she doesn’t feel like doing.

Deloris’ old friends from the first movie, a trio of lovable nuns, show up to let her know they need her help. They’re running an inner-city school where the kids run wild and the budget is next to nothing. The sisters are out of answers and they’ve decided to call upon their old friend for some inspiration. Does it make any sense at all that Deloris would leave her dream job to pretend to be a nun and teach at a school? Absolutely not, but we are not in the real world; we are in the universe where sports movies happen, just go with it.

The Villain

One of the classic tropes of the sports movie genre is the villainous executive figure, usually a GM or team owner. Maybe they don’t believe in the coach, maybe they’re a greedy, profit-driven grouch who has no interest in seeing the team succeed. It’s important that the villain is in some way attached to the team, since one of the most common recurring themes in sports storytelling is “nobody believes in us” and that becomes easier to sell when the doubt is coming from inside the arena.

In the case of Sister Act 2, that role is played by the villainous Mr. Crisp (played by the great James Coburn) who is the Catholic school version of a superintendent. Crisp is getting close to retirement and has no interest in doing what’s best for the kids under his administrative watch. The school is more trouble than it’s worth to him and his plan is to shutter it as soon as the school year ends. The stakes are high, much higher than they would be in a typical sports movie, but the solution is the same: Our heroes are going to save the school by winning a competition. That means coming together to form a…

...Rag-Tag Bunch!

After discovering a dust-covered trophy case filled with evidence of the school’s history as a competitive singing powerhouse, Deloris decides that the best way to save the school is by forming a new choir of students in her music class. This is the moment in every sports movie in which we are introduced to the classic Rag-Tag Bunch, the group of players so untrained and ill-matched for each other that they couldn’t possibly hope to succeed. There’s the guy falling asleep on his desk, the nerd, the bully, a veritable Breakfast Club of stock characters who all have an easily identifiable trait and, usually, a special hidden talent that will probably be useful later.

The Reluctant Star

Feb 24, 1999; Los Angeles, CA , USA ; FILE PHOTO; Music entertainer Lauryn Hill performs during the 41st Annual Grammy Awards at Shrine Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro -USA TODAY NETWORK

The cornerstone of every Rag-Tag Bunch is The Reluctant Star, the member of the team who is actually genuinely very talented, but for some reason can’t or won’t pursue that talent to its full potential. Enter Rita (played by a young, already absurdly talented Lauryn Hill), a disillusioned young woman who pushes back against Deloris and her efforts to save the school and its students. Why care, Rita argues, when no one seems to care about her and her classmates? Just as the plot train looks like it will be leaving the station without Rita, we are treated to what might be my favorite scene in the movie as one of the sisters happens upon Rita and a friend singing in church. The scene is not only a showcase of Hill’s astoundingly beautiful voice but also the first time Rita hears an adult tell her she matters and could make a difference. From this moment on, our star player is no longer reluctant. It’s time for the all-important…

Training Montage!

Perhaps the sports movie’s greatest contribution to cinema, the hallowed training montage is a thing of beauty when employed correctly. It allows us as an audience to skip over the deeply, brutally boring part of sports that makes most of us normal humans stop doing it around high school: Practice.

It makes an incredibly tedious and time-consuming part of life feel exciting and fun. It is for the sports movie what the spider-bite/radiation bomb/parents-killed-in-an-alleyway moment is for the superhero movie. Sister Act 2 is no exception.

Deloris leads the hopeless kid choir in a vocal exercise of seemingly random la-la-la’s until we come out the other end at the choir’s first big show in front of the entire school. A lesser movie might use this as another moment to treat us to Lauryn Hill’s amazing voice, but instead we establish a SECOND star player – the painfully shy Ahmal played by Ryan Toby (who would later have a modestly successful career with the group City High) busts out a memorably huge vocal performance of the gospel classic, “Oh Happy Day”.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ve got the team believing in their coach, we’ve got not one, but two solid stars. We just might pull this thing off unless we run into…

Trouble at Home!

Unfortunately, our off-the-field problems aren’t over yet. It turns out Rita’s mother is not so supportive of her immensely talented daughter’s singing ambitions and forbids her from participating in The Big Championship with her choir. “Singing does not put food on the table,” Rita’s mother says, once again emphasizing that in the world of our heroes, your value doesn’t come from who you are or what you can do but rather who you do it for.

Thankfully for the choir, and us, Rita decides to disobey her mother and head to…

The All-State Choir Competition!

We finally arrive at this sports movie’s version of The Big Game: the All-State Choir Competition. Three shadowy judges sit in a balcony as choirs from around the state perform and our heroes nervously pace backstage.

They seem to have met their match when they hear a rival choir take the stage and absolutely nail “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, the song our heroes were supposed to perform. The team gets nervous and nearly backs out, but Deloris gives them a Classic Locker Room Pep Talk followed by a last-second trick play – she asks the kids to lose their stuffy choir robes and perform in their extremely colorful 90s street clothes.

And because this is a sports movie, the moment of triumph is just that – totally triumphant. We get a Lauryn Hill solo, a rap duet, references to multiple pop hits of the time, everything an early-90s kid could want. Is it cringey to watch now? I’m not capable of answering this fairly or honestly because this scene and the entire movie before it brings me such pure joy. But even if it is cheesy, well, so what?

This is a movie about a group of kids who have been abandoned by their community. They don’t see any value in themselves because their community doesn’t either. They are constantly told they need to work, earn money and produce for others. It’s not until someone shows them that there’s value in creativity, in being a human and expressing yourself, that they start to understand their place in the world. 

Sister Act 2 is a sports movie, and like any great sports movie, the real victory achieved by our heroes is not the trophy hoisted above their heads in the final shot. It’s a victory over despair, hopelessness, and a world that says you’re nobody and you can’t do anything special. If the point of a sports movie is to inspire us to believe we can do the thing we’re not supposed to be able to do, there are not many examples better than Sister Act 2.

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