In retrospect, it's surprising that it took Oliver Stone so long to get around to professional football. After all, between every play, the athletes huddle and come up with a new conspiracy.
Stone's outsize, hopelessly immature but very great talent is ideally suited to the game, which is also outsize, hopelessly immature and full of great talent. "Any Given Sunday" is therefore an exercise in bombast, razzle-dazzle technique, operatic dramatizations and insufferable muckraking. On the other hand, it has lots of cool stuff: bone-breaking interior line play, perfect spirals hissing through the air to be nabbed by tumbling acrobats, and a plot with so many story arcs it could be a diagram of nuclear war. It's longer than the typical non-Monday night game.
Football fans will have great fun picking out the actual NFL antecedents to the characters and anecdotes that form the texture of Stone's slightly fictionalized, slightly exaggerated version, called the AFFA. My favorite was the delicious moment when Al Pacino as Coach Tony D'Amato gives a violent on-camera shove to John C. McGinley as an obnoxious Gen-X commentator. It recalls an equally delicious but very real moment when Rams QB Jim Everett squashed the annoying journalist/ attitude huckster Jim Rome on TV.
Though the plot is immensely detailed and interwoven (think of it as the "Nashville" of the NFL, and I mean the movie, not the Titans), the movie is united by a primary issue: the changing of the guard. Pro football is nothing if not relentlessly Darwinian, and the movie situates itself on the fault line of that merciless sense of change, as old men and ways are displaced by new men and ways: An old quarterback (think Marino, though that's Dennis Quaid) has to give way to a young quarterback (think Kordell Stewart of 1997, though that's Jamie Foxx), just as the old coach with his old ways (Pacino as Lombardi) must give way to a new one, less a leader than a technician (Aaron Eckhart, think Norv Turner).
Other issues come into it, too: An old player faces impairment by concussion (the great Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor is in the role, though if memory serves, L.T. gave concussions, never received them; but think Steve Young). A mercenary star thinks only of himself and his statistics (LL Cool J, and who in this town won't think of Michael "Hey, Man, I'm Trying to Make the Pro Bowl Team" Westbrook?). Wives, girlfriends, groupies and models are everywhere offering surcease from the tension or an uppercut to the recalcitrant. Salty old pros like Johnny U., Dick Butkus, Warren Moon and Y.A. Tittle appear in cameos. There's even a Danny Snyder antecedent, a young impatient owner who yells at the coach, then goes behind his back. Okay, so this young owner has slightly better legs than Our Danny: It's Cameron Diaz.
The movie covers four late-season games as waged by the Miami Sharks, a formerly great team (two rings) now aging and fallen on bad times. In 30 seconds of game time, starter Cap Rooney (Quaid) and the No. 2 backup are 86'd because star running back Julian Washington (Cool J) can't be bothered to pass-block. In comes No. 3, Willie Beamen (Foxx).
He got game, once he blows his cookies all over the field. Improvising desperately, defaulting to sheer talent, he has an uncanny knack of finding the open man and throwing a pass like a blue dart. Under his desperate leadership, the team, on the verge of falling out of playoff contention, begins to win. If you've ever read even one sports novel, you know exactly where this is going.
The new star falls prey to hubris and becomes obnoxious and self-centered, forgetting team values. The old quarterback, mending, becomes resentful. The coach wants to restore the old quarterback. The owner likes the sexy new quarterback, which makes the team more valuable and enables her to gain leverage over the city to build a new stadium. It's like "Sports Center" without the happy banter.
Stone is at last in an arena where his penchant for overstatement is a virtue, not a defect. He loves the vulgar decadence of the league, with its kiss-butt hangers-on, its available women, its provision of pleasures for the dim alpha hunks who make it happen. He makes professional football seem like the last party at Pompeii before the lava hit.
Some of his own pathologies show as well. For example, it's odd that in a movie about a game of violent, greedy, childish men, the most violent characters are the women. They are either sluts or attitude cases, or at least tougher than any linebacker. A ripping that Lela Rochon gives Foxx--well, her character, Vanessa, gives his character, Willie--will leave you tender for weeks.
But most of all Stone loves the game. His work-up of the four contests--each more crucial than the last--is like a loving re-creation of the Battle of Agincourt. This is medieval combat at its most muscular, as huge, profane, dirty, happy Falstaffs struggle to liberate the Prince Hals of the skill positions so that they may stand, victorious, like a band of brothers. The soundtrack seems to be composed of the impact of large pieces of meat being dropped from skyscrapers onto cement to the tune of really loud rap music. The camera goes fast, it goes slow, it dives, breaks tackles, dips, crushes, swerves to avoid catastrophe. It's the next best thing to being there.
As for Pacino, well, remember the days when he was a great actor? Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end, but they did! In this movie he's pretty much still into the Popeye impersonations that have marked his recent work, with a lot of over-the-top emoting and scenery chewing. His Michael Corleone made sense as a football coach, with that quiet, cold, detail-filled, tactical mind; this braying popinjay, who spends most of his time throwing down amber fluids in bars and reflecting on the Meaningless of It All, hardly seems the type. (One flaw: The movie seems not to get how hard these guys work. Aren't Joe G. and Norv famous for 85-hour weeks? Pacino's Tony never spends a night on an office cot or looks at one foot of game film.
(Another flaw: The allegedly pro uniforms seem more like Arena Football duds than the NFL's, particularly the so-called "Dallas Knights.")
But the movie's still a kick in the head, that is if you like your testosterone shaken, not stirred, then swallowed neat.
Any Given Sunday (180 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for a fully objective locker room scan and extreme profanity, but nothing you won't hear in the living room if the Redskins lose Sunday night.
CAPTION: Testosterone Trip: Al "Over the Top" Pacino as tough-talking Coach Tony
CAPTION: Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino and LL Cool J in "Any Given Sunday."