North Dallas Forty -- AMC Carrollon 6, K-B Cinema, K-B Georgetown Square, K-B Langely and Laurel Cinema.

You'd almost think pro football mattered, watching "North Dallas Forty."

Based on the popular novel by former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent, it's a riveting look at what goes on behind the scenes -- mainly pills, booze and shots. If you ever entertained any fantasies about America's autumnal rite's being good clean fun, this movie should set you straight.

At the same time, "North Dallas Forty" is terrifically funny, done with enough humor and wit to offset any potential heavyhandedness -- a Burt Reynolds movie with bite.

Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), a wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls, loves football despite what it's done to his body -- and it's done a lot. He wakes up writhing in agony, can barely walk, and hobbles around like he's 80. Phils and beer for breakfast.B-12 shots for lunch. We watch him making love, or trying to: "ah jeez, you always hurt me, Jo Anne, Jesus, my knee. . ."

And he's the intelligent one.

His teammates' idea of a good time is to take their rifles out and "kill a li'l sump'n." Their post-game bash makes "Animal House" look like an afternoon tea party.

Yeah, but we knew that football players are animals. The beauty of "North Dallas Forty" is that director Ted Kotcheff goes past these stereotypes to a not-so-obvious picture: football players as victims, caught in the cogs of a giant, merciless bureaucracy. To management, they're not athletes but "employees of the Dallas franchise." They're the equipment, as Phil Elliott discovers in a burst of insight at the end of the film, and the managers are the team.

The employees are kept in line through a combination of creative tension, intimidation and reverse psychology. Pep talks are an exercise in twisted logic: "If you give in to the fear and the pain, there are thrills you'll never know," says Charles Durning, as an assistant coach who believes in the line he sells. In a hilarious scene that alone is worth the price of admission, he proceeds to read the team an "inspirational" poem that sounds as if he found it on a Hot Shoppes place mat. "Some say winning isn's everything. Well if that cowardly slogan is true, why did God name us . . . the . . . human . . . race "

The players slink down in their seats as they watch each other screwing up on film. "Now Elliott, how would you describe this play," sneers Coach B.A. Strothers (thinlipped, George Allenesque G.D. Spradlin) as a shot of Elliott fumbling comes up.

Before the Big Game, things get even grimmer. A slimy doctor shoots Elliott up, a big needleful of Xylocaine into his twisted, swollen knee. "Can't fumble, can't fumble," another player moans over and over. A demented priest's prayer -- "Dear Lord, I ask your blessing on these brave boys" is answered by a rousing cheer: "Let's go kill those c -- s"

The only way to survive it all is the pills and the shots, Elliott tells Delma, a naive teammate. "Not me, man, I got respect for my body," Delma says. "isn't it about time you thougt about the team !" the coach yells. It's just a matter of time, you see, until Delma's mainlining b-12, along with the rest of the Dallas Bulls.

Because, you see, it's pro football. CAPTION: PICTURE, NICK NOLTE ON THE SIDELINES IN "NORTH DALLAS FORTY."