Click HERE to watch a very interesting short documentary by Vice’s Kev Kharas on the vicious sectarian rivalry that still thrums between Scotland’s two biggest football clubs: Rangers and Celtic.
We hope you enjoyed the first half of our guide to football on film. The second half is ready to kick off, as we turn our attentions to football violence, footballers-turned-actors and documentaries about the beautiful game.
Hooliganism at the movies
What, dear reader, could be possibly more masculine than ripping up plastic chairs, frightening innocent bystanders and spewing racist abuse at Johnny Foreigner? That’s right, nothing. As such, countless writers and directors, under the pretext of “exploring masculinity”, have turned their hand to the thorny topic of football hooliganism, which has, over time, formed its own torrid sub-genre.
As we shall see, a hazard of depicting this milieu cinematically is to fall into the trap of fetishizing violent young men and consequently failing to provide anything approaching a rigorous critical approach. In a rare example of a film of this type which doesn’t glamourize violence, 1989’s The Firm, by legendary director Alan Clarke (Scum, Made in Britain) – and later remade by Nick Love – stars Gary Oldman as alliterative arsehole Bex Bissell; a Thatcherite estate agent by day and rabble rousing West Ham thug at night. Bissell is in charge of a crew of ne’er do wells comprised of some familiar TV faces (including Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell, Coronation Street’s Jim MacDonald, and err… Only Fools and Horses’ Mickey Pearce). The best thing about The Firm is Oldman’s intense, coiled snake performance, and while it has dated poorly, it clearly and commendably seeks to examine the root cause of such abominable behaviour in the context of Thatcher’s Britain.
Philip Davis, who played Bissell’s peroxide-haired nemesis Yeti in The Firm, clearly had unfinished business in the world of football hooliganism, and went on to direct 1994’s I.D., a rather ropey drama which to this day can be found in any respectable bargain bin, identifiable by the cover shot of a grimacing Warren Clarke clutching a baseball bat whilst clad in an unpleasantly clingy black t-shirt.
The chief exponent of the hooligan film in the modern day is the aforementioned Nick Love, who has made violence amongst young males his major currency as a storyteller. His first, and perhaps most successful foray into such territory was 2004’s The Football Factory, in which Chelsea “headhunters” and Millwall “bushwhackers” go head-to-head, with Danny Dyer beginning to hone his peculiarly individual faux-hardnut/little boy lost schtick in the middle of it all. Perhaps inevitably, Love felt compelled to remake The Firm in 2009. It wasn’t very good, and definitively eschewed Clarke’s interrogative streak and grainy aesthetic in favour of crafting glutinously slick visuals, much like The Football Factory.
When I lived for a year in New Jersey, scores of enthusiastic Americans asked me if Green Street (or Green Street Hooligans, as it is known Stateside) – starring hobbit Elijah Wood as a putative thug – was reflective of real life terrace culture. A befuddled Roger Ebert, failing to get to grips with “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, gave the film a glowing review, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because the oversentimental, cliche-ridden (slo-mo, operatic violence in full effect) Green Street is not just one of the worst football-themed films, but perhaps one of the most ridiculous full stop. Geordie-born Queer as Folk star Charlie Hunnam’s sensationally poor Cock-er-nee accent (see below) is almost worth the entrance fee alone. Perhaps the last word on Green Street should go to the Washington Post’s Deeson Thomson, who tartly declared, “Soccer needs this movie like Georgia needed Deliverance.”
Despite the general lack of quality, a sub-genre had been born, and amongst the rest of the litter 2009’s Awaydays (based on the novel by Kevin Sampson) is probably the most palatable, coasting by on style and possessed of a super soundtrack, but with little substance. Far less successful was Cass, a dodgy biopic of West Ham’s Inter City Firm hardnut Cass Pennant, best known to a generation of fans as the guy who popped up on Match of the Day to darkly intone the staggeringly inane aphorism “Pele was Pele. Gazza was Gazza. Joey Cole is Joey Cole”. Other hooligan flicks that should be consigned to the dustbin of history include the unwatchable Rise of the Footsoldier, and Green Street 2, which performed the neat trick of being even worse than the first one, despite bizarrely featuring Vernon Wells, aka Bennett from Commando in a supporting role.
Footballers as actors
Once upon a time it seemed that footballers, upon retirement, were content to run a country pub, or settle into a pundit’s armchair to spout the usual platitudes. The mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona changed all that, and in acting he found the perfect outlet for a temperament so artistic that he once felt compelled to kung-fu kick an errant Crystal Palace fan in the face. Cantona’s first major role was as Monsieur de Foix in Shekhar Kapur’s period drama Elizabeth, and he followed this up by starring opposite a talking chimpanzee and a maverick monk in the madcap comedy Mookie. Not to be outdone, Cantona’s contemporary and countryman David Ginola was to try his hand at acting, starring in a
little never seen short entitled Rosbeef, about a hunky butcher setting hearts aflutter in rural France. While Ginola’s acting career foundered, Cantona forged ahead and was last seen in Kes director Ken Loach’s excellent 2009 comedy-drama Looking For Eric.
Vinnie Jones, the ex-Wimbledon and Chelsea hardman, also turned to acting after hanging up his boots, and cut an impressive swathe playing vicious yet charismatic thugs in Guy Ritchie’s first two films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. A leading role in 2001’s prison football drama Mean Machine followed, and a career in Hollywood beckoned for the big man. Jones, however, hampered by a near-total lack of range (and rumours of an ever-expanding opinion of himself), has seen his acting career peter out into into straight-to-DVD obscurity (an amusing cameo in Ultra Culture favourite EuroTrip notwithstanding). Jones also found himself the subject of a hilariously vicious parody in Mark Wootton’s ‘La La Land’ on BBC3 (“DON’T SASS ME!“), and will soon be seen starring as “Nancy” alongside Burt Reynolds and Chevy Chase in the frightful-sounding Not Another Not Another Movie. Christ.
Perhaps understandably, given the performative nature of both disciplines, Jones was not the only ex-pro who longed for the bright lights of Hollywood. As unbelievable as it still seems today, Stan “The Can” Collymore was cast in Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction as Sharon Stone’s lover, although he was bumped off before the opening credits (still, he was in it for longer than he was at Bradford).
If the jury is out on Collymore, it is very much in for some. Anyone who thinks acting is easy should look no further than Alan Shearer, who singularly fails to convincingly portray Alan Shearer in a brief cameo in Goal! Others who have struggled to acquit themselves include mean-looking ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender Mel Sterland, who appeared as Sean Bean’s nemesis in When Saturday Comes, and Ian Wright in Gun of the Black Sun, about a music mad Neo-Nazi who murders families (yes, really). Credit goes to the Who Ate All The Pies website for the spot. Rather distressingly, 1966 World Cup hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst is lined up to appear as a football agent in urban thriller Payback Season, where he will share screen time with cast members of Adulthood and Street Dance 3D.
Stranger still, the late George Best had a fleeting cameo in 1971 oddity Percy, starring Hywel Bennett as the recipient of the world’s first successful penis transplant. Staying on the theme of penile health, a bearded Pele, emboldened by Escape to Victory, appeared in 1987’s Hotshot to mentor US soccer hopeful Jimmy Kristidis (Jim Youngs). According to Amazon.com commenter Eric J.F. “this is the greatest movie that i have ever seen”, suggesting that Eric J.F. is either Pele in disguise or has only ever seen a small handful of films. Watch the climax below and decide for yourself. You really must.
Having proved himself comfortable on camera under fire from Sue Barker’s benign inquisitions in A Question of Sport, cheeky chappie Ally McCoist was cast as the romantic lead in Oscar winner Robert Duvall’s saccharine 2000 drama A Shot At Glory, which focused on the fictional Scottish side Kilnockie F.C. The film flopped, but McCoist did exceptionally well to keep a straight face when confronted by Duvall’s Fergie-on-Mogadon mannerisms and the worst Scottish accent this side of Christopher Lambert in Highlander; he sounds like Sean Connery playing Gandhi playing Duncan Bannatyne. Seriously, check it out. Having turned his back on the acting game, McCoist now has to concentrate on keeping a straight face while managing in the SPL every week.
When it comes to flexing their creative muscle, even managers have been known to get in on the act. It is a little-known fact that Terry Venables (using the bizarre pseudonym P.B. Yuill) was the co-creator of 70s TV cop show Hazell, starring Nicholas Ball as James Hazell, an “American-style hardboiled dick prowling the meaner streets of London, the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button.”
Documentaries and experimenta
Up until his chest-thumping headbutt on pantomime villian Marco Materazzi in the final of the 2006 World Cup final, French international Zinedine Zidane floated above his contemporaries like a footballing deity. The man’s genius was captured on film in the same year in a moody, multi-camera piece entitled Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, soundtracked by indie noise merchants Mogwai and hailed by critic Jason Solomons as the best football film ever made. It isn’t that, but is certainly a powerful, hypnotic work which undoubtedly reflects the mysterious aura of the great man. A 21st Century Portrait was not without precedent, being largely influenced by a 1971 film from German director Hellmuth Costard entitled Football Like Never Before, which utilized 8 16-mm cameras to track the movements of George Best in a league game.
On a similar theme, in the 2007 documentary Substitute, aptly described by Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent as “more Barton Fink than Thierry Henry”, French international Vikash Dhorasoo offers existential musings on his peripatetic career and life as a perennial bit-part player. Little seen in the UK, Substitute is a sensitive, perceptive piece that certainly deserves more exposure than it’s had.
Simply because it exists, I should give a cursory mention to David, artist Sam Taylor-Wood’s Warhol-esque film of a sleeping David Beckham. The Liverpool Museum press release boasts of a “stunning video portrait … shot in one long take”, but Russian Ark this ain’t. According to the Telegraph’s Richard Dorment, Taylor-Wood “ignores the football star and focuses on the hunk, seeing him through the eyes not of a sports fan but of a woman” – that may be, but for the perfect mix of art installation and football, one should pay a visit to the back garden of eccentric Derby County goalkeeper Stephen Bywater.
Perhaps the best football documentary is the captivating Once In A Lifetime, laconically narrated by Matt Dillon, which tells the tale of the stunning but short-lived New York Cosmos in the 1970s. Sharing its title with the Talking Heads song that communicates with near-confouding clarity the sheer unknowability of the human condition, it encapsulates the fascination, hubris, character, unpredictability and sheer excitement of the greatest game in the world.
So, ladies and gents, that’s full-time for the Permanent Plastic Helmet guide to football on film. What’s your favourite football film? What did we miss? Tell us in the comments section below.
Over the years, there has been a surprisingly voluminous crossover between football and film, with a number of movies taking the beautiful game on as a subject matter, footballers turning (often unwisely) to acting, and entire sub-genres being created in its honour. As a new documentary – The Referees – hits UK screens, and the domestic season finally gets underway again, Permanent Plastic Helmet would like to take the opportunity to lead you on a journey through football on film, revelling in the good, laughing heartily at the bad, and refusing to shy away from the ugly (and boy, does it get ugly).
Football on screen
The beautiful game has been used as a starting point for many a film aiming to get to the heart of the human condition. With its emotional peaks and troughs, moments of high skill and low farce, passion and commitment, football is the perfect backdrop upon which to set a human story.
Blessed with a fast pace and unpredictable rhythms, the action of the game itself is rather difficult to capture authentically without looking fake or telegraphed, as director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, The Commitments) has elucidated: “Every time I’ve ever been asked to do a film about football I say ‘no’ … it’s an impossibly difficult sport to replicate because football is seen primarily in wide-shot. The excitement unfolds seeing at least four players in one shot. This is very difficult to cheat. The illusion of film is about editing and close-ups”. Popular 90s Sky TV drama Dream Team took the novel approach of integrating close-up and mid shots with existing game footage, and simply coloured in the shirts (Harchester Rovers wore purple) on the wide shots.
Perhaps the most successful examples of the genre, as suggested by Glenn Moore in The Independent, are those that relegate reconstruction to the margins. The likeable Bend it Like Beckham (2002) was a huge critical and commercial success, and used the game as a background to a universal tale of cultural and familial relationships. Similarly, Bill Forsyth’s utterly charming 1980 comedy Gregory’s Girl, which used the gangling charms of teenage star John Gordon Sinclair to great effect, told the story of a young dreamer captivated by the talents of a female footballer at his school, yet ultimately finding love with a more suitable partner. Widely regarded as one of the very first football-themed films, 1939’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (not, as some wags have suggested, “why is it so quiet?”) is a witty thriller which used football action sparingly yet effectively, prompting Martin Scorsese to comment that, “[even as] someone who can’t stand sports – soccer, anything with a ball – I find the soccer scenes exhilarating”.
1995‘s Fever Pitch, based upon the novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, circumvented the issue of staging action by basing its love story upon real events; the tense run-in to Arsenal’s 1988-89 league title winning season, which provided a thrillingly believable backdrop to Colin Firth’s romantic victory. In a similar vein to Fever Pitch, BBC TV movie My Summer With Des was a touching (and vaguely supernatural, if I remember correctly) romance starring Neil Morrissey and Rachel Weisz which was aired to coincide with the beginning of World Cup 98. Other likeable football-themed movies which capitalized on the post-Euro ’96 English football afterglow were Manc scamp fantasy There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble and Purely Belter, which charted two young Geordies’ desperate attempts to secure season tickets for Newcastle. Newcastle United was the destination for Kuno Becker’s Mexican ingénue Santiago Munez in the first of the Goal! trilogy – a series of gently entertaining films with adequately directed football sequences that ultimately suffered from cliche overdrive and a case of diminishing returns.
When football action on film doesn’t work, however, it really doesn’t work. Maria Giese’s When Saturday Comes, which follows the fortunes of factory worker Jimmy Muir (Sean Bean) and his debut at 36 (36!) for Sheffield United, is a real underhit back-pass of a film. With its crunching Def Leppard soudtrack, and pseudo-‘Angry Young Man’, This Sporting Life-esque vibe, When Saturday Comes fails on every conceivable level, and the only angry young men would have been those who had parted with cash to see the film at the cinema. If you really need convincing, the people who made the trailer gave away the entire plot in just over two minutes, thus kindly precluding the need for anybody to sit through the whole thing.
Even sillier than When Saturday Comes, yet vastly more enjoyable due to its extraordinarily motley crew of a cast and epically sweeping story, is John Huston’s Escape to Victory (or simply Victory, as it’s known in North America). Based on 1962 Hungarian war drama Two Half Times in Hell, …Victory focuses upon a group of World War II POWs who agree to play a friendly against a German team, only to find themselves involved in a propaganda stunt. The film flirts consistently with the ludicrous and dances with the predictable, but any film that manages to shoehorn Max von Sydow, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Bobby Moore, Pele, and Russell Osman onto a screen at the same time deserves a watch (the high profile professional footballers proving a surreal yet genuine tang of authenticity). Another highly regarded war-themed football film is Miracle of Bern from 2003, which tells the tale of a young German boy and his depressed ex-POW father against the backdrop of the “miracle” West Germany victory in the 1954 World Cup in Bern, Switzerland.
At the other end of the spectrum – and further underlining the international appeal of the game and its appropriateness for cinematic representation – is Stephen Chow’s barking mad and truly brilliant kung-fu comedy Shaolin Soccer. Taking the absurdity of the game to it’s limit and beyond, Chow’s film is an ingenious blend of choreographed physical humour, special effects and bone-crunching violence, featuring the likes of “Mighty Steel Leg” Sing, Hooking Leg and “Golden Leg” Fung. Khyentse Norbu’s immensely touching Tibetan comedy The Cup follows two young football-mad Tibetan monks in India who desperately try to source a TV so that they are able to watch the 1998 World Cup Final (an event which, incidentally, was perhaps more interesting for the will-he, won’t-he play? drama of Brazilian Ronaldo).
The popularity of football in America has been incrementally on the rise for a number of years but, as evidenced by the fervour which surrounded the women’s team at the recent World Cup in Germany, it is perhaps still most strongly perceived as ladies sport, and certainly more popular amongst youngsters. Accordingly, The US is responsible for pumping out a surfeit of school-based soccer comedies, including Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s The Man and Will Ferrell in Kicking and Screaming, which, with takings of over $56m worldwide, is actually the highest-ever grossing football themed picture. The best thing you could say for 1993 cross-dressing comedy Ladybugs, starring the late Jonathan Brandis, the late Rodney Dangerfield, and the presumably not-late Jackee Harry (aka Tia and Tamera’s mum from Sister Sister) was that it adequately represented the kick and rush chaos of small girls playing football. Sadly, it also happened to be astonishingly sexist and homophobic. Redressing the balance somewhat was Gracie, starring Leaving Las Vegas‘ Elisabeth Shue – a personal film that drew upon Shue’s own football-mad family, and was dedicated to her older brother William, a talented footballer who died at the age of 26.
Those of an existential, more Euro-centric bent need look no further than Wim Wenders’ bleak The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty from 1972, in which a goalkeeper, red-carded for a professional foul, disappears into the night to murder a cinema cashier. The whereabouts of Jens Lehmann after his 2006 Champions League final red card remain a mystery, although a one-night-only spike in the murder stats of the surrounding St Denis suburbs certainly provides a clue.
Despite not featuring football as the main thrust of the narrative, there are a number of notable moments in films that look to the inherent drama of the game to advance the plot, or simply provide a colourful break from the story.
The Secret In Their Eyes, the enjoyable Argentine potboiler that mystifyingly pipped both A Prophet and The White Ribbon to the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009, features perhaps the finest football sequence in a non-football film to date.
Beginning with an aerial shot over Argentine side Huracan’s glowing Estadio Tomás Adolfo Ducó stadium, the camera sweeps in to join a team at the point of a sweeping counter-attack. The attack ends with a shot glancing off the crossbar, but the camera continues to travel at speed into the crowd, eventually locating our hero Esposito and his partner on the lookout for their target: a rape-murder suspect. A goal is scored, the stadium erupts and the target is spotted, catalysing a riveting chase sequence that takes us around the interior of the stadium and finally ends on the pitch – all in one single take. The scene took a scarcely believable three months of pre-production, three days of shooting and nine months of post production to complete. It was absolutely worth it.
Certainly the funniest football on film sequence taps into our collective, hazy childhood memories of playing the game with adults. In Ken Loach’s Kes (to be screened as part of a major retrospective of the director’s work at the BFI in September) Brian Glover plays the tyrannical P.E. teacher Mr Sugden, who assumes the role of star striker, referee and commentator all at once.
Other critically acclaimed international films including Lukas Moodysson’s Together (the wonderfully shambolic match that concludes the film is a must-see), Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, Meirelles and Lund’s City of God and even Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, with its desultory prison kickabouts, illustrate how deeply woven into the fabric of international society that the game is.
Largely held accountable for a team’s successes and failures, the football manager is a natural choice for a dramatic protagonist. The astonishing 1993 TV documentary An Impossible Job charted England’s fraught, and ultimately unsuccessful World Cup USA ’94 qualifying campaign as presided over by the fraying Graham “The Turnip” Taylor. In its unsparing portrayal of a lexicon-mangling man on the edge (“DO I NOT LIKE THAT?”, “I’M A METRE! I’M A METRE!”) its influence can be seen clearly in Mike Bassett: England Manager, an amusing comedy starring Ricky Tomlinson as a lower league manager given the top job after his predecessor dies of a heart attack. Mike Bassett spawned a less successful TV series, but the original remains a canny, knowing look at the stresses and strains of the job.
On a more serious note, 2009’s The Damned United saw the world’s highest paid impersonator Michael Sheen take on one of his toughest challenges to date. Based on the expletive-ridden novel by David Peace (worth knowing before you give it to Granddad for Christmas), The Damned United charts the tempestuous 44 days in which Brian Clough took charge of his detested Leeds United. Despite a slightly Sunday afternoon TV drama vibe, it is amongst the most well-received football-themed films of recent years and features fine performances all round. Timothy Spall is excellent as Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor, despite resembling his subject about as much as he did Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech (also directed, incidentally, by The Damned United’s Tom Hooper).
Whilst not strictly film-related, I am unable to resist the temptation to include a link to the greatest managerial breakdown caught on camera to date. Method actors of the future should sit back and absorb the molten fury of John Gregory lookalike John Sitton, as he explodes during a half-time team talk, and offers one of his underperforming Leyton Orient charges out… to dinner?!
…and on that rather frightening note, the first half draws to a close. The second half of the Permanent Plastic Helmet guide to football looks at hooliganism on film, footballers who turn to acting, and documentaries on the game. See you in fifteen.
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.
Prior to seeing Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes, all I knew about it was that it had triumphed over Michael Haneke’s spectacularly icy The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s brilliant prison drama A Prophet to collect the Oscar for Best Picture in a Foreign Language at the 2010 awards.
Although the Oscars are far from a reliable barometer of quality, as any sentient individual who has sat through Crash (which, to my mind, still contains some of the most bollock-tighteningly awful individual scenes in cinema history) will attest, it seemed obvious that The Secret… was going to have to exhibit some serious quality to deserve its prize.
And did it? Well, not quite. Starring Nine Queens’ Ricardo Darin, who resembles no-one so much as a rugged, charismatic and alive Jeremy Beadle, as criminal court investigator Esposito, The Secret in Their Eyes ultimately revealed itself as a smart, engaging and satisfying thriller with nods to 70s Hollywood (The Conversation, The Day of The Jackal) and more recent success stories like Memento (with which it shares a revenge-is-pointless thematic drive) and fellow Oscar-winner The Lives of Others (memories, the passing of time, and typewriter-as- plot point!) although was limited by its occasional recourse to cinematic clichè and a slightly limp third act enlivened, admittedly, by an unexpected conclusion.
The Secret in Their Eyes, however, will surely be remembered for one sequence in particular – an astonishingly cinematic tour-de-force which towers head and shoulders over the rest of the film in terms of verve and punch, and channels De Palma, Scorsese and Welles in its manic ambition and stunning execution.
Beginning with a high aerial shot over a luminous football stadium, the likes of which we have recently been treated to in the coverage of the World Cup in South Africa, the camera sweeps into the stadium to join a football team at the point of a sweeping counter-attack. The attack ends with a shot glancing off the crossbar, but the camera continues to travel at speed into the crowd, eventually locating Esposito and his drunken partner Sandoval on the lookout for their target – a rape-murder suspect. When a goal is scored, the stadium erupts and the target is spotted, catalysing a riveting, bracingly violent chase sequence that takes us around the interior of the stadium and finally ends on the pitch in one utterly confounding take.
The scene, filmed at Argentine team Huracan’s stadium, apparently took a scarcely believable three months of pre-production, three days of shooting and nine months of post production to complete. It was worth it. So visceral was the sequence, that when it concluded, I was perched on the edge of my seat and literally short of breath. This sequence was pure cinema, and up there with other great one-take treasures – think Children of Men and Touch of Evil.
Also strongly reminiscent in terms of Guy Ritchie’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’-chanelling Nike commercial, it is worth the price of admission alone. Perhaps the Oscar panel were football fans.