Tuesday 30 April 2013

Movie Review: Any Given Sunday (1999)

Oliver Stone moves his exploration of brutal conflict from the battlefields of war to the playing fields of gridiron football. Any Given Sunday is a drama-packed thesis on the eternal struggle to win the game, win in business, and win at life through the lens of unforgiving sport.

Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) is the ageing head coach of the Miami Sharks, a football team with a winning history but now on a three-game losing streak and struggling to make the play-offs. The team's star veteran quarterback Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and his back-up both go down injured in the same game, forcing the untested third-stringer Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) into action. The team's owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) is busy pressuring politicians to secure a taxpayer-funded new stadium. She doesn't like the losing streak, and clashes with D'Amato. Offensive Coordinator Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart) is younger and more technologically savvy, and waiting in the wings to nudge Tony out of the head coach position.

Beamen's athleticism provides a spark to the team for a few games, and he becomes the latest league sensation, but he plays for himself and disrespects both the team ethos and the traditions of the game. Meanwhile, team doctor Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods) turns a blind eye to potentially serious injuries to keep the star players active, horrifying the idealistic new medical intern Dr. "Ollie" Powers (Matthew Modine). As D'Amato battles to save the season, his job and his reputation, Christina runs afoul of the league commissioner (Charlton Heston), Rooney has to decide if his battered body has any football left in it, and Beamen discovers what it takes to find genuine success on the football battlefield.

Stone compacts several seasons worth of drama into a few games, Any Given Sunday not leaving any possible professional sports hot issue unexplored. The overnight sensation, the pummelled veterans, the conniving owner, the cunning but maybe past-it coach, the scheming assistant coach looking to kill the king, the doctor who sold his soul, the idealistic intern, the glory of the team, the hints of racism, the obnoxious sports radio host, the gold-digging women, the sex and drugs, the horrific injuries, the dramatic losses and the incredible wins: if it has ever happened on the pitch or around the owner's board room, it happens in Any Given Sunday.

This much content requires a firm hand at the controls, and Stone delivers with plenty of swagger. At close to 160 minutes, Stone gives himself plenty of time to provide each story with the necessary momentum and a well-defined arch, and the movie never seems neither rushed nor slow. The thunderous on-field action alternates with plenty of scenes to build-up and round-out the key characters, and well before the end credits Tony D'Amato, Jack Rooney, Willie Beamen and Christina Pagniacci have matured into believable and interesting personalities, warts and all.

Stone dives into his large bag of talent and pulls out plenty of flashy style, filled with light tricks, close-ups, silhouettes, and hyper edits, the on-field action only slightly more fast and furious than the world that the athletes, coaches and owners inhabit. In less frantic moments Stone brings the ghosts of football past to life to evoke the spirit of the games' traditions, giving metaphorical meaning to legacy, team spirit and the importance of the collective game over any one individual. And in another memorable scene where Tony and Willie have dinner, the chariot race from Ben Hur plays on Tony's television and embodies the epic struggle of both men.

Throughout the movie, the soundtrack booms out a large number of high energy clips, the music amped up to extra loud and used as a regular jolt of energy in scene transitions. And just as an exclamation point, Stone puts an errant eyeball to use, a literal "you ain't seen nothing yet" statement.

In another of his defining roles, Al Pacino finds the crease where a glorious past meets an uncertain future in the life of a coach. Tony D'Amato is doubted by many, trusted by some, and talked about by all. No one really knows if his best days are behind him or if he still has the necessary magic to turn a group of overpaid individuals into a winning team, and Pacino convincingly conveys Tony's own uncertainty about his ability to cope.

In his first major dramatic outing, Jamie Foxx gets the other dominant role. For long stretches of Any Given Sunday, Foxx's presence is magnetizing, his take on Willie Beamen in keeping with a new breed of athlete in the game for money, girls, parties and personal glory, history and team-mates be damned. Foxx plays Beamen with a bundle of vitality and talent, plus a large axe to grind. His talent comes with his attitude, and his challenge is to find the formula that will transform a short-term phenomenon into long-term success.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, James Woods, Aaron Eckhart and Matthew Modine are adequate without setting the screen on fire. Ironically, Diaz's mismatch in acting against Pacino works in her favour, since Christina Pagniacci is struggling to live up to the legacy of her dead father who entrusted her to run the team. LL Cool J and former players Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown are also in the large cast.

Any Given Sunday is filled with climactic moments on and off the field, justifiably the most famous being Tony delivering an inspirational locker room team talk before a key game. With his own future in doubt and players in turmoil due to internal jealousies and personality conflicts, Tony digs deep to find the core of what it means to be a team.

Tony: We're in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And, we can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell, one inch at a time. [...] On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the fuckin' difference between winnin' and losin'! [...] Now, I can't make you do it. You gotta look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes! Now I think you're gonna see a guy who will go that inch with ya. You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows, when it comes down to it, you're gonna do the same for him! That's a team, gentleman! And, either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals. That's football, guys. That's all it is. Now, what are you gonna do?

Pacino nails the moment with his unique brand of coiled yet wizened intensity. Any Given Sunday does the same: sports as metaphor for life, the reward coming out a direct multiple of the effort going in.

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