Profanely funny, wised-up and heroically antiheroic, "North Dallas Forty" is unlikely to please anyone with a vested interest in glorifying the National Football League.
While there's never been a better fictional film about pro football, league officials and franchise owners are more or less duty-bound to regard it as offensive and possibly a threat to national security.
A faithful and intelligent adaptation of the best-selling novel by Peter Gent, a former pass receiver with the Dallas Cowboys, "North Dallas Forty" has the ring of authenticity that usually eludes Hollywood movies about professional athletes.
Gent shares screenwriting credit with director Ted Kotcheff and producer Frank Yablans, and this admirable distillation makes a few improvements on the novel: including lighter bouts of doping and orgying and the invention of a witty new conclusion to the last game played by the protagonist, flanker Phil Elliott.
Nick Nolte, the most stirring actor on the American screen last year as the heroically deluded Ray Hicks in "Who'll Stop the Rain," embodies a different kind of soldier-of-fortune in the role of Elliott. An explosive physical presence as Hicks, Nolte has let his body go a little slack and flabby to portray Elliott, a young man with a prematurely aged, crippled body.
"North Dallas Forty" uses pro football as a fascinating, idiosyncratic setting for a traditional moral conflict between Elliott, a cooperative but nonconforming loner and figues of authority who crave total conformity. Elliott's skill as a receiver is readily acknowledged by his coach, B.A Strothers (G.D.) Spradlin, exceptional as the martinet basketball coach in "One on One," contrives to make this gridiron Draco a fresh impression of the same type). However, superior "individual effort" isn't sufficient. Neither is a willingness to endure pain. Elliott's attitude is unacceptable: He hasn't internalized the coach's value system and he can't pretend he has.
The movie opens with Nolte in bed, his pillow stained by a nosebleed that he'll discover as soon as he wakes up. When the alarm goes off, he drags his scarred, beefy carcass into the bathroom, where he removes some stray cartilage from his nostrils, pops a couple of pills, rolls a joint and eases himself painfully into a hot tub.
Elliot is a demanding character for Nolte, and he delivers. The introspective Elliott is inclined to avoid trouble and temporize with figures of authority. He feels physically valnerable and takes pains to protect his aching bones and tender flesh.
When pressed into sexual service by an enthusiastic mistress, Elliott has to remind her to watch the sore arm, the sore shoulder, the sore leg. When the coaches provoke a fight in practice, Elliott is the only member of the North Dallas Bulls watching calmly from the sidelines.
The psychotic outbursts Nolte dispayed as Hicks are now characteristics of Elliott's bigger, tougher, crazier teammates, notably the Brobdignagian offensive guards Jo Bob Priddy and O.W. Shaddock. played by Bo Svenson and John Matuszak, respectively. Encouraged to develop a ferolious rapport, Svenson and Matuszak emerge as a sensational, eversized comedy team. Their pregame psych-up rituals are showstoppers.
Elliott is well aware that he's not made of intimidating, indestructible stuff: He has sustained his carrer by playing with pain and crippling injuries. And he can't conform in the frankly opportunistic, hypocritical style perfected and recommended by his sole friend and allyu on the team, the star quarterback Seth Maxwell (played by Mac Davis) who advises: "Hell, we're all whores anyway -- why not be the best?" Or as Elliott says, "The meanest and the biggest make all the rules. I make allowances, then run like hell."
Ultimately, Elliott must face the fact that he doesn't belong in the North Dallas Bulls "family." Despite his lingering affection for the same and the joy he still feels when performing well, there's not enough of that satisfaction left to make playing worthwhile. He confides to Charlotte, a young woman who soon becomes his potential solace and escape route: "I can take the crap and the manipulation and the pain, just as long as I get that chance." When even the occasional chance is denied him by a management which believes it more prudent to dump him, Elliott has enough character to say Goodbye To All That with few regrets and recriminations.
The conflict in values never becomes one-sided or simple-minded. Coach Strothers is an eloquent spokesman for the authoritarian way, and thanks to Spradlin, we can feel the emotional need behind his pursuit of perfect execution and obedience. In his way the coach is an artist consumed by an unattainable vision.
Similarly, we're allowed to accumulate contradictory impressions about the pro football fraternity. The humor, camaraderie and loyalty are contrasted with the maddening agression, manipulation and adolescent behavior patterns. The gulf between coaches or owners or fans, is also clarified because of Gent's intimate understanding of the milieu and intense psychological identification with the players.
One begins to see how playing demystifies the game by constantly imposing limits on a player's ability and aspirations. It's easier for nonplayers to sustain heroic fantasies in which anything is possible. The next step is expecting real players to live up to those unrealistic standards and feeling cheated when they fail.
"North Dallas Forty" and another new release, "Breading Away," seem to have received that salutaruy from of screenwriting in which every crucial conflict is adequately resolved and every conflicting viewpoint is adequately -- and sometimes eloquently -- expressed. The essentially serious nature of the story seems to enhance the abundant, vulgar locker room humor. By contrast, in the movie version of "Semi-Tough" the same kind of jokes seemed cute and affecred.
Nolte doesn't dominate "Nolte Dallas Forty." If anything, the towering, madcap Matuszak is the commanding physical presence. However, this subtler, reserved Nolte is an appealing heroic figure. Nolte proves his versatility by embodying a sane, contemplative protagonist, a man's man who isn't instinctively a battler. The Deep," but now he's capitalized on a classier opportunity.
Kotcheff allows the camera to go a little inert in some scenes, but he's transcended the jittery, overemphatic tendencies that used to interfere with his otherwise vigorous, performance.
Charlotte, who seemed a creature of rhetorical fancy in the novel, still remains a trifle remote and unassimilated. Dayle Haddon may also be a little too prim and standoffish to achieve a satisfying romantic chemistry with Nolte: Somehow, the temperaments don't mesh.
But happily every other important element of the story plays with a zest, cohenrence and impact that might turn Coach Strothers green with envy. CAPTION: Picture, Nick Nolte in "North Dallas Forty"