“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour–his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear…is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle–victorious.” So goes the preface to “Any Given Sunday.” No, it wasn’t a quote from General George S. Patton. It wasn’t even George C. Scott. It was, of course, the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi (1913-1970), who only acted and sounded like a combat general. If you take your football as seriously as he did, maybe even confusing it with something like life and death, then this movie might be right up your alley, or goal post, or whatever.
Be aware, however, that it’s hard to tell most of the time if co-writer/director Oliver Stone was making a serious sports movie here or a satire of a sports movie. You be the judge.
Stone, forever bent on telling us everything we didn’t already know about everything–like what really happened to Kennedy and what really goes on with Wall Street financiers, rock stars, serial killers, U.S. Presidents, and other creatures of odd habit–this time packs every stereotype he can think of about football, and every cliché as well, into one long, loud, hard-hitting, fast-paced, action-packed epic. I mean, if you don’t like football, you’re not going to like this film. If you do enjoy the game (and I count myself as one who does, having never missed a 49ers game in twenty-seven years), you may still find the movie noisy and drawn-out. Like its main character, coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino, who rants and rages better than anyone in the business), “Any Given Sunday” tries hard to cover all the ground, damning the game and glorifying it at the same time. Oliver Stone never thinks small.
The movie begins with its strong suit, putting viewers into the very heart of the game. For the first twenty minutes we see, hear, and feel the plays, the tackles, the hits. Probably more realistically than in any football movie before it, “Any Given Sunday” captures the physical essence of the game in all its fierce, bone-crushing ferocity. Forget about any beauty, grace, or polish the sport may sometimes exhibit; here it’s all brute strength and muscle, a world of the trenches. This is no mere contest between high-paid, athletic entertainers; it’s a war of titans. With a couple of more games in the middle of the story and a lengthy game sequence at the end, well over half the movie is devoted to game-play action. By the time this two-hour-and-twenty-seven-minute director’s cut is through, it has left the audience dizzy and not a little exhausted.
In its way, the whole movie is patterned after a football game. On the field or off, it’s a story about rivalries. If a character shows his or her face on the screen, you can be sure the character will be in conflict with somebody else before long. In fact, you can bet on it. The central character is D’Amato (Pacino), coach of the fictional Miami Sharks. He’s in conflict with everyone–his quarterbacks, his team’s owner, his lover, and himself. The first word out of his mouth when the film begins is a four-letter expletive. His second, third, and fourth words are like unto his first. He’s a man for whom football is not just a passion, it’s a life. He has no other. He’s been the hard-drinking, pep-talking coach of the Sharks for thirty years; he appears to have no close friends or family; he lives in a huge, elaborate, and very empty house; and he pays for his female companionship. He is loyal to his oldest players, loyal to the game, and loyal to the old-fashioned virtues of honor, tradition, teamwork, and the glory and brotherhood of the sport. The new owner wants him fired.
The new team owner, a young woman named Christina Pagniacci, is effectively, if one-sidedly, played by Cameron Diaz. She is cold blooded and calculating. She wants only to make money and that means a championship. She has inherited the team from her father, for whom the sport was more than a moneymaking proposition. But to her, a winning season is all that counts, and Tony has lost four games in a row. She thinks he’s a dinosaur. Not even her mother, played by Ann-Margaret, seems to like her, and one character goes so far as to suggest she would eat her young.
The starting quarterback is an old veteran, Jack “Cap” Rooney (Randy Quaid), who has taken too many hits to the head and is starting to feel the effects of so many concussions. He ought to step down, but like many athletes, he’s too proud. He wants to retire a winner and is sure he has another couple of good seasons in him. When he’s knocked out of a game for good, he’s forced to reconsider his position, even though his wife, Cindy (Lauren Holly), throws a tizzy fit at the suggestion of his quitting. Like almost everyone else in the story, she thinks only of the money and celebrity status they’ll lose. San Francisco Bay Area football fans will see similarities between one of their own teams and the cinematic team’s new female owner and its aging star quarterback with head injuries. The differences lie in the film’s exaggerated, over-the-top, soap-opera melodrama.
When Cap is forced to sit out a few games and the second-string quarterback is also hurt, the number-three man, Willie Beamer (Jamie Foxx), takes over. He wins two games and everyone suddenly sees him as the future of the franchise. He gets his picture on the cover of magazines and he makes a music video. Naturally, stardom goes to his head and he instantly becomes a cocky, arrogant know-it-all who refuses to follow the plays D’Amato calls. He loses his girlfriend, antagonizes his coaches, alienates his teammates, and pukes before every game.
Among the minor characters, football hero Jim Brown stands out as an assistant coach. Unlike most of the one-dimensional personalities in the film, Brown combines raw strength and toughness with sensitivity and common sense. I’d liked to have seen more of him. James Woods appears as the obligatory unscrupulous team doctor who will do anything to keep his players going. Woods by now is typecast in these slithery roles. His assistant is a noble and idealistic young physician played by clean-cut Matthew Modine. You foresee early on the friction developing there. LL Cool J plays the star running back who is pissed off at the new quarterback for not letting him carry the ball enough. His stats are hurting and his endorsements are running out. Football great Lawrence Taylor plays “Shark,” a linebacker who needs one more sack to reach a million-dollar incentive in his contract and is willing to risk his life to get it. Oliver Stone and former Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer play broadcast-booth announcers. And Charlton Heston shows up in two parts. In one of the film’s metaphoric references to ancient gladiatorial contests, we see him on TV in the chariot race from “Ben Hur.” Then he shows up as the Commissioner of Football. Appropriately, Heston many years ago played an aging quarterback being pressured by a young up-and-comer in the 1969 film, “Number One.”
Because this is an Oliver Stone film, it tries to do more than show us the excitement of the game. It must expose the game as well. The only trouble is, there’s nothing much to expose that we don’t already know from reading the newspapers. So football is all about money and endorsements and winning at all costs. So it’s about spoiled, overpriced athletes, inflated egos, implicit racism, violence, wild parties, drugs, women, alcohol, fast cars, and the assistant tackling dummy’s stainless-steel kitchen sink. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” says the team chaplain with a straight face, emphasizing the game’s presumed resemblance to war. It’s a game of “intensity” says Christina. OK. So, what else is new?
Like all sports pictures, the coach in “Any Given Sunday” gives several inspirational locker room speeches worthy of Knute Rockne (or Pat O’Brien), and the movie ends in the mandatory final, deciding play-off game. This may be the crusading Oliver Stone directing, but it’s still just the movies.
The film’s plot and characters are more than a little hackneyed, but there’s nothing wrong with the DVD’s image or sound. They’re championship caliber, starting with the screen’s generous 2.40:1 ratio, anamorphically enhanced, which preserves much of its original theatrical exhibition width. The picture quality is extremely smooth, fine grained, well defined. Colors are natural and radiant, if not always completely stable. The overall effect, nonetheless, is quite lifelike.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is better yet. In fact, it’s terrific. The sound is very precise and especially well distributed in all the channels during game play to put the viewer in the very middle of the field of action. These sonics are deep and dynamic, with crowd noises, tackles, crunches, grunts, groans, even rain, most convincing.
A twenty-seven-minute documentary, “Full Contact: The Making of Any Given Sunday,” accompanies the film. In some ways, it is as entertaining as the movie itself. Then there’s a music video by LL Cool J, “Shut ’em Down,” a song from the film. And there are cast and crew biographies and filmographies, DVD-ROM features, forty-seven scene selections, and a trailer. It’s an above-average collection of special items. English is the only spoken language, but English and French are provided for subtitles.
The best parts about “Any Given Sunday” are the hits. The second-best parts are the hits. Stone keeps his camera in motion at all times. But even this becomes excessive; after all, real games are known to take time-outs or commercial breaks on occasion. At one point we can’t be sure if Stone is pulling our leg or not when one of his players loses an eye, literally. It’s torn out and lies on the field until someone with an ice chest carts it away. If the whole movie had been done as a dark comedy, titled, say, “Natural Born Killer Footballers II,” it probably would have improved it. Take away the gritty warfare on the field, though, and you don’t have much left.
On any given Sunday, a good, professional football team has the potential to win or lose. I’m sure that Oliver Stone, as a good, professional movie director, knows this feeling all too well. In any case, whether he was being serious or satiric, he won’t have football to kick around any more.