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Game Film, No. 8: Any Given Sunday

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number eight: Oliver Stone’s answer to the question, “What if a movie about football could somehow snort cocaine?”

The most uneven movie of the bunch. Filled of highs which rank right up there with the top movies on this list, and lows which sink lower than many which didn’t even make the cut. Moments of gripping realism mixed moments which are laughably unrealistic. Scenes which feel like they might have come right out of locker rooms alongside scenes there purely for shock value. Any Given Sunday is like the epically talented player who reels off highlight plays very few are capable of, but also has a fumbling problem, a drug problem, and doesn’t really know the playbook.

This was the single hardest movie for me to rank in the entire project. An extremely colorful, extremely entertaining, and extremely over the top look at professional football through the ADD-addled perspective of Oliver Stone. I wanted to rank it higher due to its pure entertainment value, eye-popping visuals, and unvarnished look at the ills of pro football. But at the same time, I wanted to rank it lower due to its frequent preference for style over substance, its glaring lack of cohesion, and its absurd self-indulgence. The way it plays, you imagine the filming as chaotic and filled with delays, script problems, casting issues, endless partying, and a fistfight between actors. Oh wait, that’s exactly what it was.

It’s not hard to imagine how an Oscar-winning screenwriter like Stone might have script problems when you consider he bought three different screenplays (one co-written by former 49er TE Jamie Williams), and a book by a former Raiders team doctor, and then tried to stitch all four stories together into one movie. It’s like Frankenstein’s football movie -- monstrous at times, but rarely boring. It also helps explain why the film clocks in at 162 minutes. That’s two hours and 42 minutes if you’re scoring it home -- or even if you’re by yourself.

Last week’s selection of All The Right Moves provides a great counterpoint example. That film is 91 minutes, never once feels unrealistic, and absolutely nails the small-scale, low-degree of difficulty story it tells, but much of it is not about football and none of it is cutting edge. This movie, on the other hand, takes place in a heightened reality and often falls short in its attempt to coherently tell its story, but is so far-reaching, with such a high degree of difficulty, it demands you grade it on a curve. Deciding which movie is better was almost impossible for me. This one got the nod, despite its issues, because it is all-in on football. All The Right Moves is a better movie in my opinion, but Any Given Sunday is a better football movie.

Let’s break it all down. But first, the trailer.

MVP

Jamie Foxx as “Steamin’” Willie Beamen was a revelation. Foxx had been a comic actor, known best for his stint on In Living Color, but this performance demanded people take him seriously as a dramatic actor. And to think, he only got the role because Stone’s first choice, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, showed up for the movie’s “training camp,” which all the actors were required to participate it in, and reportedly “threw like a girl.

After this performance, Fox got offers on all kinds of big dramatic roles -- even attaching himself in 2000 to a remake of A Star Is Born to be directed by Stone, which obviously never happened — eventually leading to him winning the Oscar for Ray. But it all began here. His ability to stand toe to toe with Pacino, Diaz, et al raised him to another level.

In this role, he has to play many angels of Beamen, a talented but mercurial QB. he’s funny yet serious, happy and angry, selfish yet sympathetic, a nobody and then a star. His life changes completely and we buy Foxx at every stage all the way through. And he plays well with Pacino, which seems like it isn’t easy. But if we’re boiling the performance down to one highlight, it’s not his serious acting chops, sharing scenes with Pacino, or even his convincing athletic prowess. He’s the MVP of this movie for many reasons, but none more than this:

Key role players

  • Al Pacino as Tony D’Amato, a drunken, burnt-out, lonely head coach on the downside of his career (picture Jeff Fisher if he was Italian and had a championship). When he’s not coaching the team, D’Amato can be found closing down bars, drunk-dialing his ex-wife, and frequenting a prostitute (Elizabeth Berkeley), who he may be falling in love with. In short, he’s pathetic, but lovably so -- in a Jim Tomsula kind of way (minus the farting).
  • Cameron Diaz as Christina Pagniacci, a brash, young team owner looking for a bigger, better deal -- a new stadium, more money, a younger head coach and QB, etc. When this came out, I would’ve said having her calling the team’s offensive coordinator in the press box to suggest plays was too much, but since then an actual GM has done the very same thing (because what would Kyle Shanahan know about calling plays?). Diaz plays Pagniacci as loud-mouthed and annoying, which is to say she does a pretty good job, seeing as her character was reportedly based on a mix of Jerry Jones and Georgia Frontiere.
  • 45-year-old Dennis Quaid, veteran of two other football movies (Everybody’s All-American, The Express) and two other sports movies (The Rookie, Breaking Away), as 39-year-old QB Jack “Cap” Rooney, who’s won two championships, but is injured and losing his job to the younger, more athletic Beamen. Quaid is great at portraying an athlete hanging onto his career by a thread while questioning if he should just let go. The problem is, both his coach and his wife (Lauren Holly) are too selfish to let him walk away gracefully.
  • Aaron Eckhart as Nick Crozier, the team’s young, slick, up and coming offensive coordinator, brought in by Pagniacci to revolutionize the Sharks offense. Think Sean McVay minus the manicured stubble.
  • John C. McGinley as writer/TV host Jack Rose, who closely resembles what Jim Rome was at the time. But they changed one whole letter of his last name to not get sued.

The opponent

Mainly, the hazards of life in pro football -- the rigors of competition, greed, selfishness, the ravages of age, etc. But there are some heels, too: James Woods as callous team physician, Dr. Harvey Mandrake, and Cameron Diaz’s Pagniacci.

Mandrake gives players whatever diagnosis or treatment best suits the team’s needs, putting his players at risk. Pagniacci works with Mandrake to manipulate injury statuses, meddles in D’Amato’s coaching, and considers a relocation to Los Angeles.

Both get their comeuppances in the end. Mandrake is fired after his unethical methods are discovered. Pagniacci pushes D’Amato into stepping down, only have him use his outgoing press conference to announce he’s taking a job with the expansion franchise in Albuquerque and has signed Beamen as his QB.

Rookie of the year

Lawrence Taylor’ performance as Luther “Shark” Lavay is surprisingly large and surprisingly good, considering his lack of experience. Sure, he plays a very Lawrence Taylor-like player -- a LB who changed the game, and battles personal demons -- but it’s not his fault he doesn’t have to stretch much for the role. Also not his fault: his nickname is the same as the team he plays for, which is just weird.

Like the rest of the film, Taylor’s highlights are both cartoonish and heartfelt. In the former, he’s led to feel slighted by Beamen, so naturally he cuts Beamen’s SUV in half with a circular saw.

In the latter, he tries to explain the facts of a football life to Beamen in the steam room.

As good as Taylor is in the role, I’m afraid it will always be his second most recognized film performance.

Key moment

One scene stands so far above all the others in this movie, there can be no other choice. Pacino’s “inches” speech before the Sharks playoff game:

The highlights

  • The movie opens with a Vince Lombardi quote, followed by thunder and lightning and a clip of football being played against a backdrop of storm clouds. But just when you’re worried this might be off the rails from the start, the opening scene drops us right into the middle of a game. On the first play, Rooney is injured. On the next play, the backup QB is as well. Suddenly, Beamen is in the game, and we’re off and rolling. There’s a lot of wasted time in the middle of this movie, but it doesn’t waste any getting started.
  • It was a nice touch to have LL Cool J’s Julian Washington, the Sharks star RB, attending an anti-drug benefit thrown by the team and ending up in the bathroom doing blow off a woman’s nipple.
  • Late in the film, it’s revealed Levay suffered a broken neck that didn’t heal properly, and any hit could leave him permanently disabled. But he refuses to retire because he’ll lose a million dollar bonus if he doesn’t reach his incentive for tackles. While making a game-saving tackle (on former 49er Ricky Watters) in the playoffs, Levay is knocked unconscious, leading to his satisfying final payoff (literally).
  • I really love the Sharks uniforms, but did they not have road uniforms? They play five games in this movie and wear the exact same uniforms in each game -- black helmets, black pants, black jersey with white numbers. At home or on the road, whether their opponent is wearing white or colored jerseys, it doesn’t matter, the Sharks are in black.
  • How can you not enjoy teams with names like the Houston Cattlemen, Washington Lumberman, Oregon Pioneers, New York Emperors, Colorado Blizzard, Wisconsin Icemen, and Kansas Twisters.

The lowights

  • Cutaways to black and white shots of the golden age of football don’t just remind us of the past, it hammers us over the head with it. Cutaways to Ben-Hur don’t just posit that football players are modern day gladiators, it bludgeons us to a bloody pulp with the point. Subtlety is not Stone’s forte.
  • Stone’s own performance as an announcer is pretty over the top as well (swigging from a flask, high-fiving after good plays, etc).
  • But nothing is more over the top than an eyeball on the field.

Football scenes

The on-field action is the real highlight of the movie. Inspired by Saving Private Ryan, Stone wanted to bring a battlefield feel to the football field. It worked. The game come alive. It’s visceral and thrilling. I’m not a fig fan of the hyper-kinetic, over-stylized approach typical of Oliver Stone’s later work, but it really works between here.

Realism

The off-field stuff is laid on pretty thick. Whether it’s the medical stuff, the politics, or the partying, it comes off cartoonish at times. But then, the same can be said of the NFL. Sure, it’s unrealistic to show a player throw a live alligator into the showers, but it’s hard to call out Stone for giving everything an outsized, surreal feel when the NFL’s off-season headlines often do the same. Twenty years later, Stone’s movie is still a pointed look at the issues in the league. That’s why it’s no wonder the NFL pulled out after reading the script.

NFL cameos

LT isn’t the only NFL Hall of Famer with a significant part. Jim Brown brings Mike Singletary-like intensity to his role as the Sharks defensive coordinator. The opposing coaches are also ex-NFL greats: Bob St. Clair, Y.A. Tittle, Dick Butkus, and Johnny Unitas. Former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer is an announcer. According to IMDB, several other ex-NFL players also appeared in non-speaking roles.

Best line

“My name is Willie... Willie Beamen
I keep the ladies... cream-in’
And all my fans... are screa-min’
You gon’ defeat me? You drea-min’”

Up next

The most divisive football movie of all time. Hint: You either thought it would be No. 1, hoped it wouldn’t make the list, or both.

Previous posts:
Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves