I’ve always had a lot of time for Oliver Stone’s mid-late nineties output, especially the batshit crazy, MTV-gone-wrong trilogy of Natural Born Killers, U-Turn and Any Given Sunday. The latter was on TV recently and I was once again hypnotised by its kinetic flow of testosterone, epileptic jump-cuts and highly random soundtrack selection. I am well aware of Any Given Sunday’s multiple limitations: an undeniable misogyny (well, it’s an Oliver Stone film after all, a guy so obsessed with representations of dick-waving virility that he makes Hemingway’s oeuvre self-consciously metrosexual by comparison), a potentially objectionable revisionist nostalgia (“the game was pure back in the days, ra ra ra”) and the usual, unchallenged brothers-in-arms apology; but the staggering, relentless energy of the piece leaves you reeling and breathless at the end, as if you’d just played the last quarter, counting your bruises under the cold shower. I can’t think of many films that are viscerally this much fun, and for once, I have to agree with Mark Kermode who put it perfectly at the time in Sight & Sound: “Any Given Sunday may fall on its face a few times during the game, but wouldn’t you rather watch a team going recklessly for the touchdown than playing safely for time?” Besides, this was probably Al Pacino’s last hurrah, whose inches speech (that I always found more demoralising than inspiring honestly, especially compared to this) has now firmly secured cult-status.
Undeniably, despite a couple of narrative shortcuts hurting the reality effect – yes, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) landing the cover of Sports Illustrated and suddenly having his face plastered on every bus in Miami after only three games is a bit much – Any Given Sunday is at its most convincing when portraying the players in all their flaws and glories behind the scenes, from fame-craving up-and-comers to coke-snorting washed-up stars and dressing room psychos. I personally always loved the white-trash, Metallica-loving “Madman” Kelly who throws his baby alligator pet in the showers to settle a rap versus heavy metal battle.
Out of the plethoric and star-studded cast of secondary characters – all excellent, from the medic duo of innocent intern Matthew Modine and evil materialist silverfox James Woods to LL Cool J as a delusional aging player (admittedly not much of a stretch if you draw the obvious parallel with his music career) – two figures always stood out of the pack of mighty beefcakes for me: Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence “Shark” Lavay: the intense defensive coach and the ailing franchise star. Both are played by two absolute legends of America’s favourite sport, respectively Jim Brown (one of the best men to ever play the game) and Lawrence “L.T.” Taylor, the leader of the New York Giant’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew in the late eighties, an emblematic hard-hitting linebacker equally notorious for his ruthless tackles as for his off-field antics (rape allegations, drugs, prostitutes – the lot).
But let’s go back to Jim Brown first – mostly known on the big screen as one of the Dirty Dozen under Lee Marvin’s orders but also, in my favourite role of his, for playing the badass retired boxer turned Vegas pharaoh in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, who literally kicks the green shit out of hundreds of bulbous headed invaders to reunite with Pam Grier and his kids. In Any Given Sunday, he is Montezuma Monroe (what a name), sporting the kind of manly moustache upon which blaxploitation franchises were once built. Brown steals every scene he’s in with his geriatric ghetto pep-talks and proto Sam Jackson swagger, walking away with the film’s best line, the classic “I don’t get strokes motherfucker, I give ’em!” Purists might object to the use of the best running back in history as a defence guru (a bit like having a “soccer” flick with Pelé playing the goalkeepers’ trainer) but Jim Brown brings sincerity and credibility to the role, as well as a note of much-needed authenticity and legitimacy to the director who did not manage to get the NFL authorisation to use real franchise names and had to rebaptise the Superbowl the Pantheon Cup. Brown’s world-weary, “too old for this shit” partnership with Al Pacino works wonders and you almost believe him when Monroe ponders with tremolo in his voice giving up pro football for going back to coaching high-school teams, where the game is “pure” (though anyone who ever watched the sublime TV series Friday Night Lights obviously knows better than that).
On the other hand, Shark, closely based on Lawrence Taylor’s real-life persona but also very reminiscent of Shaquille O’ Neal in its gigantic exuberance, is probably a more arresting character in the sense that he stands as the perfect epitome of the modern sport superstar. Also, before I get into further sociologic convolutions, he’s just pretty awesome: colourful, engaging and always funny (check his hilarious dance moves at the charity ball or this sleazy deleted scene from the same portion of the film) – the kind of guy that will circular-saw your Chevrolet in two in order to school you on the indispensable reliance of the offense on the defence, and vice-versa. Lawrence Taylor, with his imposing frame, Jaws-like smile and undeniable charm seems to be having a ball the whole film – after all, didn’t he always dream of himself as a movie star? (see The Terminator vintage ad, left)
Shark is the charismatic captain of the Miami Sharks’s defence and the soul of the franchise, loved by fans and staff alike. He’s also a gold-toothed egocentric, a veteran obsessed by his bonuses, deciding to squeeze as much money as he can from the twilight years of his career. He’s a gladiator in Nike shoes fearlessly descending into the arena with a badly healed broken neck, his personal sword of Damocles, giving it 100% on any given Sunday but also, and probably consequently, a keen consumer of enhancement and recreational drugs. Shark is a “superfly brother in the white men’s world” (Willie Beamen’s words) who “can’t take a piss in the morning without a pill” (his doctor’s words), a party organizer whose motto is “no semen, no blood on the sheets”. Put simply, he’s both a living contradiction and the identikit of the 21st century pro athlete, an ubermensh with a broken body, disciplined on the field and dissolute as soon as he leaves it.
Shark is not a schizophrenic character though – his love of football is as genuine as his love of money, a fact made clear in the scene when the medical team tries to persuade him to retire early to avoid a fatal injury. Football IS money, two things so intrinsically imbricated that for the pro athlete the concepts are synonymous, there is no difference between the two. This doesn’t render his plea for team spirit to Willie Beamen before the play-offs less genuine than his bonus bargaining. After the tremendous block that secures the semi-finals but confines him to a stretcher, his first words are, resuming consciousness, “did I block him?” quickly followed by Coach Monroe’s answer: “yes baby, you made your bonus!”. To the paramedics, Shark concludes: “Don’t drop me, I’m worth a million dollars”. Winning and making money is just the same damn thing in modern sport, and just like in Wall Street, “greed is good”. One athlete’s individual value is now measured in dollars rather than numbers of broken records, in the same way that Jay-Z evaluates his musical career by the number of copies he moved rather than his actual artistic quality. Shark is both a scion of Monroe’s legacy and its antithesis – they both care enormously about the game but associate different values to it.
Sport fans love to oppose loyalty and materialism, devotion to the game and cupidity. Morality has always been a dubious concept in sports, and definitely a bygone ideal since the game became one of the most lucrative job a man can ever do. Oliver Stone’s achievement in Any Given Sunday is to present this false paradox as something understandable, which says a lot about our love/hate relationship to stadium gods. No matter how unlikeable they can be, as long as they have talent and perform during game time we can never resist these spoiled overgrown children, just like the self-righteous doc played by Matthew Modine who ends up surrendering to Shark’s charm and administrates him doping products. In other words, Oliver Stone tackles once again the seductive side of capitalism and Shark is just another – though bulkier – Gordon Gekko.