Tag Archives: Guide

The PPH guide to football on film: 2nd half

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

The lads from Alan Clarke's The Firm (1989) - yes, that is Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses on the right

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

"...'ow you can call me fat, John Gregory?"

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

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: moody, elegiac (and just a little bit boring)

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.


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The PPH Alternative Guide to Robert De Niro #1

A blast from the past (photo by Xavier Lahache)

He never really left, but we kind of missed him.

Robert De Niro is back where he belongs, at the centre of the film world, presiding over the Cannes Film Festival from the height of his past greatness just as fresh digital prints of Taxi Driver are hitting our screens (there’s also a nationwide re-release of The King of Comedy in France coinciding with the festival).

Is there anything left to write about Bob, the emperor of thespians, the legend of the New Hollywood, the pope of Method? Like an antique Roman sculpture, he’s a reminder of a better, different time when cinephilia ruled supreme over the box-office, before summer blockbusters, franchises and “reboots”, a time when cinema-goers were treated as intelligent, thinking adults and not de-cerebrated teenage monkeys spending their pocket money on popcorn. A time when films were a cultural event, defining the era, a source of endless dinner conversation, rather than plain entertainment. De Niro’s career, or at least the miraculous first twenty years of it, is a time capsule containing everything we loved about American cinema, constituting the reptilian memory of any modern movie-brat.

For a time, our hearts balanced between him and Al Pacino in a disputed fight for the title of the Greatest, as tight a contest as Cassius Clay versus Muhammad Ali would have been, until everyone agreed that Bobby won that one by K.O in Heat. This was more than fifteen years ago and since then, as if exhausted by the cost of this pyrrhic victory (the gruelling physical transformations, the maddening mental preparations), not much has happened. We’ll make an exception for his bittersweet, misty-eyed performance in the sweetly nostalgic Jackie Brown (1997), his humble goodbye to Cinema with a capital C. Today, Mr. De Niro is a businessman, making the odd cameo or self-parody here and there, but staying mainly focussed in endlessly expanding his real-estate empire and opening new exotic-chic restaurants.

And don’t look for an heir to the throne either. It won’t happen again, and no, Leonardo Di Caprio is not a contender, despite Martin Scorsese’s desperately obstinate attempts at moulding a new, younger alter ego with a similarly italian sounding two-part surname. As Bobby himself admitted in a recent interview, this kind of masculinity, this virile intensity, is gone. Times have changed and the current cinematic landscape, shaped by risk-shy Hollywood suits believing that comic-book adaptations are solely able to fill cinema seats, won’t allow it.

So, with our hearts heavy with nostalgia, we’d like to commemorate the genius of Bob De Niro, a man we love(d), by humbly presenting the PPH Alternative Guide to Robert De Niro, from the forgettable to the sublime.

Five bits of vaguely intriguing trivia

  • Robert De Niro Sr., a painter and key figure of Greenwich Village’s bohemia, was rumoured to have been Jackson Pollock’s lover. Despite what many believe, Robert De Niro Jr.’s childhood was nothing like A Bronx Tale.
  • He auditioned for the role of Sonny in The Godfather, losing it to James Caan. There’s no question who really “won” in the end though, as Bob swiftly received a call from F.F Coppola when Brando refused to reappear in The Godfather II. Check the rushes: a bit of that Johnny Boy swagger don’t you think?
  • At the end of the seventies, Jean-Luc Godard wrote a script tentatively titled The Story, a biopic focusing on the prohibition gangster Bugsy Siegel, slated to star Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton. Never happened, but makes you wonder what if. On a similar note, Jeff Bridges was the original choice to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. What a different film that would have been…
  • A pony-tailed, disoriented, French-speaking Robert De Niro appears alongside Catherine Deneuve in “A Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema by Agnes Varda (another figure of the French New Wave), a disparate collection of sketches celebrating the 100 years of cinema in 1995. Dig the sweet surrealism.
  • According to girl group Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey, the band’s chirpy 1984 hit single Robert de Niro’s Waiting was originally called Al Pacino’s Waiting, but that didn’t fit so well with the music. Also, the song is sung from the point of view of a rape victim… not so feelgood now eh!

Five films to revisit

You know your Travis Bickle from your Jake La Motta, you’ve seen The Deer Hunter and don’t even lie when you claim you’ve watched the entire Godfather saga.  But don’t consider yourself a Bob’s connoisseur until you checked these more-or-less forgotten gems:

1900 / Novecento (1976)

De Niro’s first and only real venture into European arthouse, 1900 is an insanely ambitious, 4-hour long deviant superproduction sketching a portrait of the century, as viewed from the Italian countryside. From communism to nazism, from serfdom to the industrial revolution, Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece is a epic pageant full of blood, sperm, piss and cocaine, oozing hubris through every frame in which the sordid is sublimed and the wealth rendered putrid. In one of the most flamboyant pairings of the decade, the rich, insouciant landowner De Niro faces the bastard peasant Gérard Depardieu, in a game of dares on and off screen culminating with the infamous, frontal masturbation scene. Recently, in one of his now-common drunken public confessions, Depardieu explained that him and De Niro, like two declining porn stars on a set in Budapest, had trouble getting it up until the Frenchman kindly brought along his own magic concoction of chinese heat rub and water. Sordid and sublime indeed.

The Last Tycoon (1976)

Still basking in the violent glory of his tantalising turn in Taxi Driver, Bob decided to wrong-foot the entire world waiting for another traumatising, soul-baring incarnation and gave instead one his most delicate compositions. In Elia Kazan’s farewell to cinema, he plays a movie mogul during Hollywood golden age, a frail Fitzgeraldian hero obsessed by the only woman he can’t have, wandering through the grandiose sets of fake stucco with the dangling arms and dreamy eyes of a lost child, living vicariously through the tame romcom he produces. This melancholic cautionary tale of a man who understood cinema better than anyone, but didn’t know how to live contains a magistral face-off with Jack Nicholson bizarrely left unmentioned in most film history books. From the über-physicality of Travis Bickle to the fragile loneliness of Monroe Stahr, De Niro was already demonstrating he could do it all, but few people saw it at the time. Elia Kazan stained reputation (McCarthy, etc.) didn’t help either.

The King of Comedy (1982)

Misunderstood at the time of its release, The King of Comedy is probably the least celebrated work from the Scorsese-De Niro partnership. However, a breeze of revisionism is gently pushing the film towards the top of critics’ lists, and nowadays there’s nothing trendier in some circles than to announce that The King of Comedy is your favourite offering from the Italian American package. It’s only right, as the duo’s first foray into comedy is truly visionary, foreshadowing reality TV and more generally the Warholian syndrom of fame for fame’s sake that governs today’s pop culture, served with a deadpan, sombre humour a la Andy Kaufman. Essential.

Midnight Run (1988)

De Niro’s unsung contribution to the 80s institution that is the buddy movie. Teaming up with Charles Grodin (the suburban dad of the awful Beethoven films) for Martin Brest, arguably the “inventor” of the genre with Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run is a faultless product of its time: silly macguffin, swift execution, excellent supporting cast of farcical mugs (Dennis Farina, Yaphet Kotto, Joe Pantoliano) and terrific dialogue, benefiting from De Niro’s science of improvisation and Grodin’s timing. Midnight Run was also perhaps Bobby D.’s first truly commercial film, a new direction that would be confirmed in the next two decades, when he tended to abandon auteurs for an easy payday in the world of home entertainment. If they were all half as exhilarating as Midnight Run that wouldn’t be so bad, but it didn’t really turn out that way…

Backdraft (1991)

I admit it, this could be easily dismissed as a cynically provocative choice, as Ron Howard’s “pyrotechnic” take on Chicago’s firemen (haha, see what I did here?) is from the start burdened by some MAJOR flaws: a) William Baldwin b) William Baldwin c) William Baldwin and d) one of Kurt Russel’s most ridiculous lines (that’s my brother goddamit!). However, I developed a soft spot for this film whose charm relies purely on nostalgic factors.  A quintessential production of the early nineties, Backdraft is a post-Top Gun over stylised action film full of deeply homoerotic machismo, terrible cock-rock music, MTV-style colour filters and pre-CGI tour-de-forces (the fire is alive man!). Most of Bob’s screen-time was cut in the editing room, transforming his contribution into the kind of 4-star cameo, handmade performance of the tutelary figure that he’d specialise in for the rest of the decade. As the blasé, heavily scarred, smoking-on-the-crime-scene arson investigator, he’s never been so badass playing a good guy (he’s even nicknamed Shadow – seriously, how cool is that?)

Part II is coming up soon, and like The Godfather, it’ll surely surpass the first instalment, thanks to a couple of alarming movie haircuts, Bobby D’s. films that you probably haven’t seen and definitely shouldn’t and great lines that are neither “you talking to me?” nor “you fuck my wife?”.

GG