The Longest Yard
Oliver Stone Goes Into Overtime, Fails to Score
Oliver Stone may be the world's most bombastic, overheated filmmaker, but it's hard not to feel sympathy for the guy. With Any Given Sunday, Stone makes a foray into the übermacho world of pro football, wanting to show just how determined and badass are the men who play a game that's been called "controlled violence." And just as Stone's film was about to be released, Rae Carruth, a wide receiver and former first-round draft choice of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, got himself arrested and charged with arranging the murder of his girlfriendhis pregnant girlfriend. It's as if the athletic gods had risen up and told Stone, "Whatever you can come up with in the bad-deportment department, boy, we can top it."
The peculiar fact is, Stone has not come up with very much. Yes, the game footage showing the Miami Sharks, of the fictional Associated Football Franchises of America, looks bone-crunchingly authentic. But anyone who watches HBO's Inside the NFL has seen better. In fact, the basic cinematic style Stone uses for game action was developed by NFL Filmspouring rain, pounding music, slow-motion slipping and sliding, highly miked tackles that let you feel the pain of a 280-pound body hitting a 240-pound body at full speed.
With the public so accustomed to seeing the real thing portrayed with such drama, how could Stone make Any Given Sunday memorable? He tries by cobbling together the story of an aging coach, a brash young African-American quarterback, and a headstrong female team owner who all engage in various sorts of gamesmanship on and off the field for 170 minutes. (Yes, this is yet another holiday release that checks in at nearly three hours. Have all the good film editors died or something?).
But all the conflicts never come together, because Stone's screenplay, written with John Logan, is larded with just about every never-say-die, never-give-an-inch, "a little man can whip a big man if he keeps on comin'" sports cliché in the book. Napoleon "Tony" D'Amato (Al Pacino), an Italian guy who has coached in Miami for decades, is an amalgam of Vince Lombardi and Don Shula. His Sharks are slipping and team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) thinks the game has passed D'Amato by, so she's grooming a hotshot offensive coordinator as his replacement. Meanwhile, Dan Marino-ish quarterback Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid) is hearing footsteps at age 39, especially after he's knocked out of a game and Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) takes his place, freelancing his way to victories instead of running D'Amato's controlled game plan. Knee-deep in conflicts with his owner and new starting quarterback, can Tony D'Amato gut it up one more time and make a playoff run?
Sure, 'cause he's a never-give-an-inch kind of guy. And Pacino, simply by virtue of his trademark intensity, gives a pretty fair approximation of a pro-football head coach, a profession calling for more intensity than even acting does. But it's not the hoary locker-room speeches that make his performance worth watching. It's the little things, such as the way he alters his speech over the course of a drunk scene, so that he's speaking with a thickened clarity at the end. What helps make his performance more authentic is that his drinking companion is assistant coach Montezuma Monroe, played by the greatest NFL running back ever, Jim Brown. (Now in his 60s, Brown sports massive, sculpted biceps. He's easily America's scariest sexagenarian.)
NFL greatsreal greatspop up throughout Any Given Sunday. The Sharks defensive captain, Luther Lavay, is played by Lawrence Taylor, surely the best pass-rushing linebacker in history. During various games, other big names are spotted roaming the opposite sideline, including Dick Butkus, the game's greatest middle linebacker. (Give Oliver Stone one thing: He really knows his linebackers.)
But for Baltimore fans, the biggest shock and pleasure comes when the Sharks reach their first playoff game. Standing across the field from Pacino's D'Amato, portraying the opposition's head coach in a part with no lines, is none other than Johnny Unitas. He does his best to look solemn, but in the numerous glimpses of Unitas, he always seems to have the beginning of his trademark crooked little smile, maybe because he probably earned more dollars standing on that sideline for a few hours than he did in the first few years of giving up his body in the NFL. That's the real pleasure of Any Given Sundaywatching great old players get a Hollywood payday.