There is no more overrated talent in Hollywood than Oliver Stone. His career is supported by the twin pillars of excess and machismo, encased in a childish political ideology that reveres Chavez and Castro but reviles Bush. Three of his films – U Turn, Alexander and W – are mind-numbingly awful, The Doors ends up, like its protagonist, a bloated mess, and even some of his more solid films (Platoon, Wall Street) age very poorly with the simplicity of their characters and binary nature of their struggles. Born on the Fourth of July has its moments, but it’s propelled by Tom Cruise’s sweat glands more than anything else. JFK and Nixon are better, but they are no more than historical cartoons and do not wear well with time either. And why Stone is lauded for the abattoir that is Natural Born Killers has always escaped me.
So, where can a garish, shallow auteur obsessed with manhood and devoid of nuance find his milieu? Professional football.
Al Pacino is the coach of the Miami Sharks, world-weary and past his glory (in Any Given Sunday, you win Pantheons, not Super Bowls, and Pacino has won 3). His mentor, the team owner, is dead, and the franchise is now run by the owner’s daughter, Cameron Diaz. His star quarterback, Dennis Quaid, is breaking down, and after a mid-season injury, Pacino must rely on a selfish, gifted third stringer (Jamie Foxx). Pacino must teach Foxx how to run the team, to leeeaaaaaddddddd, and in the end, how to become a better man. As he does it, a whirlwind of images (Lebaron, Lombardi, Tittle, Unitas) whoosh by, and then there is lightning and thunder claps. It’s pretty heady and kind of exciting if you don’t dwell on how stupid this all is.
Stone doesn’t give you much time to dwell because the picture moves like a freight train even while capably handling numerous subplots. There’s the star linebacker (Lawrence Taylor, who does a fine job), literally one hit away from paralysis, yet one tackle away from a $1 million bonus. There are the team doctors (James Woods and Matthew Modine) who square off because Woods lets the players play with dangerous injuries and Modine objects. There is Quaid and his driven wife (Lauren Holly) who will not give up her throne as the quarterback queen, even slapping Quaid when he suggests he might have to retire because of injury. LL Cool J is a the selfish RB, all about “getting mine” and Aaron Eckhart is the whiz kid offensive coordinator, stunted under the old school style of Pacino.
We get games in monsoons, whiz-bang on field collisions, gruesome injuries, frenzied and ferocious linemen, hot Miami chicks galore, perfect spirals, and more. There is also a hell of a pep talk by Pacino, alternately absurd and inspiring–
Beyond the speeches, there are nice exchanges in the script, such as this one between Foxx, who is just starting to show his chops, and Pacino, where Foxx explains the other side of the schmaltzy, “no I in TEAM” crapola
FOXX: You can feed the press that whole sacrifice and glory-of-the-game crap. But I been there. I seen a long line of coaches… with that same old bullshit halftime speech … You know it’s bullshit
because it’s about the money. The TV contracts, fat-cat boosters in the skyboxes. Coaches trying to up their salaries. You looking for the next black stud to take it to the top 10. Get you in a bowl game. It’s the same way in the pros. Except in the pros, the field hands get paid.
PACINO: Don’t play that race card on me, kid. 25 years I work with men of your color.
FOXX: Maybe it’s not racism. Maybe it’s placism. Brother has to know his place. Right, boss?
PACINO: I don’t understand what you’re talking about. You don’t trust anybody because of what happened in college? You knew the rules. You were the one that broke them.
FOXX: How did I break them? How? I lost a million-dollar signing bonus because I took a $300 suit
from a booster to go to a wedding. What’s a brother supposed to do in college? He ain’t got money.
He wants to go out on a date. Wants to get some nice clothes. Everybody had their hands out but it was me they suspended. I dropped six rounds in the draft because of that. The coaches labeled me: “He’s trouble. He don’t wanna play ball.” You talk about sacrifice. I sacrificed $10 million because dumb rednecks like the coach in San Diego made me a cornerback because I got quick feet. He separated my shoulder tackling 250-pound motherfuckers. I don’t do that! I was a great football player. But nobody let my shoulder heal, and they traded me out of there.
PACINO: You go ahead. Blame everybody but yourself.
PACINO: Because that’s what a leader’s about. Sacrifice. The times he’s gotta sacrifice because he’s gotta lead by example. Not by fear and not by self-pity.
FOXX: Who you think you’re talking to? Half my career is over and you want me on the bench.
So, I like this film very much, and I like it even more every time I see, which never happens with Oliver Stone flicks. That does not, however, mean it is a good film.
For example, Oliver Stone cannot write women who aren’t whores or connivers, but at least here, he concedes the point and just makes Diaz a mannish ballbreaker. Her character is the most macho one in the film, which is not a good thing.
Stone also could not or would not get the rights to use actual NFL franchises/logos. I’m sure the cost was prohibitive or perhaps the NFL didn’t really want its brand tarnished. But if you’re going to make up teams, the Dallas Knights need to have uniforms a little less ridiculous than this:
“I shall tackle thee, m’lady”.
Stone also casts himself as a sports announcer so he can say “Holy Cow!” or “What a play!” But Stone does not have “the voice” and he sounds like he’s eating sunflower seeds. It’s not as bad as Spike Lee playing a reporter in Summer of Sam but it is pretty bad.
The theme is also oppressive. Men and lost fathers are everywhere. Foxx is fatherless, Pacino lost his in WWII, Quaid is a little boy in Pacino’s hands, Diaz was the son her father never had. All of this is served in one big syrupy ladle.
Last, in the final game, a dude’s eyeball is knocked out of his head. Come on.