Film Reviews

Out of bounds

Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday lasts as long as a National Football League game -- which would be no crime were the film anything more than nearly three hours' worth of outtakes spliced together by a palsied editor with a hearing problem. Entire scenes are inaudible, the hip-pop collage soundtrack booming so loudly that you can barely hear actors trading banalities, most of which seem to have been lifted from The Portable Vince Lombardi. Other scenes are unwatchable; turns out Stone thinks the name SteadiCam is ironic and still finds Star Trek's shaking camera a viable form of communicating panic. Any Given Sunday is a football film made by a man who apparently has seen little of the game outside of movies, and not very good ones at that. Think The Last Boy Scout or Johnny B. Goode, not North Dallas Forty or even Semi-Tough.

Stone, ever the conspiracy theorist with the MTV attention span, attempts to discuss and dissect all the Big Issues surrounding pro football: escalating TV revenue, aging veteran players, the way medicine turns a blind eye to injury when the Big Game is on the line, general managers who overrule coaches, suck-up sportswriters, the scarcity of black head coaches and owners, and on and on. But he has made what amounts to a Playstation football game based on the Cliffs Notes of ex-Cowboy Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty. He touches on each topic, yes, but like a junior-high essayist, he can't find the words to make his own point, so instead he filches those of others who have come before him. He throws out iconic names -- Y.A. Tittle, Sammy Baugh, Lombardi, etc. -- like someone who came across them in an NFL history book. Only he offers no context; he merely rants when good ol' storytelling would have well served his purpose.

Each character in Any Given Sunday can be reduced to the most banal characterization; think high concept and lowbrow execution. There's the aging coach (Al Pacino) of the Miami Sharks who can't keep up with the modern game, the veteran quarterback (Dennis Quaid) too proud and frightened to quit despite myriad injuries, the hotshot third-string QB (Jamie Foxx) who gets his shot in the bigs and becomes the instant egomaniacal superstar, the general manager (Cameron Diaz) who wants to prove she's not just Daddy's little girl, the team physician (James Woods) who would rather inject a player with the needle and risk injury or even death than pull him from the lineup. So it goes, until Stone all but runs out of stock characters and begins yanking them from old tapes. At one point, a Tom Landry look-alike is seen strolling the opponent's sidelines, as though God's Coach himself were back in the game. The moment elicits nothing but chuckles, though ex-Cowboys coach Barry Switzer's cameo as a TV commentator (he's partnered with none other than Stone himself) drew the biggest laughs at a recent local screening.

God only knows what Stone's ransom-note scripts read like; likely, they are nothing but long speeches punctuated by instructions to "Insert Rap Song Here." The movie, like much of Stone's recent work (save, perhaps, the dreary U-Turn) never takes a breath, except when it lapses into slow-motion, sound effects included; Stone thinks he's the first director to turn a player's growl into a lion's roar. He begins with a football game, ends with another (a playoff game against the Dallas Knights in a Texas Stadium that has been made to look like a setting from David Zucker's South Park-on-sports BASEketball), and crams the middle two hours with speech after speech. After a while, Pacino's coach Tony D'Amato begins to resemble a drunken street-corner prophet, ranting about how it's not whether you win or lose, but whether you can do both like a man. More often, his speeches are indecipherable gibberish; clearly, he's the Stone stand-in, the beleaguered voice of reason trying to say everything in a single hoarse breath.

Any Given Sunday makes HBO's long-gone football series 1st & Ten look like the stuff of gritty documentary; the only difference is, in place of 1st & Ten regular O.J. Simpson, Stone has rounded up his own ringers, namely Jim Brown as the defensive line coach and ex-New York Giant Lawrence Taylor as the old-timer on the line who's one play away from sudden death. The casting of L.T. is rather cagey; the tormented Hall of Famer, disgraced by so many drug problems, brings more baggage to this movie than a skycap at Christmas. Stone cannily turns the tables by making L.T. the voice of reason: At one point, Taylor, playing Luther "Shark" Lavay, tells Foxx's young QB Willie Beaman that when "a man looks back at his life, he should be proud of all of it." He delivers the line like someone who is not.

For a film about pro football, Any Given Sunday feels awfully minor-league. Stone attempts to exaggerate the ferocity of the game -- to make us feel each hit -- by placing us in the helmet of each player; he wants us to bear witness not to the game itself, but to the crippling pain wrought by each completed pass or three-yard dash. From the perspective of quarterback Jack "Cap" Rooney (Quaid), we see only blurs of players, distorted patterns instead of real people; from the perspective of linemen, we see bloodshot eyes and bared fangs. One game takes place in a downpour, rain drenching every player beneath dim lights -- as though the stadium were lit by a handful of crowd members holding flashlights.

As though banging home the extra point, D'Amato's a huge fan of Ben Hur, which unfolds in silence on his big-screen television moments before the coach delivers to Willie a speech about teamwork, the gladiators of the gridiron, and the need to sacrifice everything to win at all costs. Not long after that, the commissioner of the league appears, and he is none other than Charlton Heston. It's so shocking and so silly a casting move, you half expect every character to stop Heston, gather their friends, and scream, "Look, it's Ben Hur!" Stone, so holed up in his private world, doesn't realize how often he takes us out of the movie -- and back into the lobby.

What Stone presents is not a diatribe, but mere soap opera dolled up in a popcorn polemicist's cheap uniform. Once, the writer-director could at least generate a little controversy, a little interest; JFK, Natural Born Killers, even Nixon might well have been the deranged works of the speed-freak auteur, but at least their madness was captivating. Here, Stone offers us nothing even the most casual SportsCenter viewer doesn't already know: Sports is corrupt, yes, and so very violent, but gee whiz it's fun. Opening a week after Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth was arrested for having his girlfriend murdered -- see, real life is more entertaining and frightening than any movie -- Any Given Sunday feels awfully ill-informed, empty, fatuous.

Because of the NFL's stingy licensing policy, Stone has been forced to set his film in a fictional league, something called the Associated Football Franchises of America. Apparently, the NFL does exist (there is a quick reference to "the Sharks' crosstown rivals, the Dolphins," and Cowboys Super Bowl banners still hang from the Texas Stadium roof), but the AFFA is the dominant league. The movie's failure to connect to the real world renders it nothing but the work of pulp fantasy. He even invents the unthinkable -- the quarterback's wife (played by Lauren Holly) who wants her banged-up husband to keep playing, despite his pain. "You've got two or three more good years left in you," she tells Cap, before bitchslapping him like a good little drama queen. This thing could have been titled Plays of Our Lives.

It's as though Stone is remaking Platoon one more time, or showing us only the no-shit moment in Wall Street when Charlie Sheen steps out onto his balcony and utters aloud, "Who am I?" Only, he has replaced the battlefield of war and the battlefield of commerce with the good ol' chalk-marked battlefield of professional sports. And in the place of Charlie Sheen as the decent soul done in by a rotten world, he has put Jamie Foxx, doing his best Deion Sanders impression as the forces of good (Pacino) and evil (Diaz) tug upon him. This is not a subtle point: Early on, the team's preacher ends a blessing by telling the gladiators that "there are no atheists in the foxhole." Somewhere, Vince Lombardi is snoring through the gap in his teeth.