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Friday, May 26, 2000

'ANY GIVEN SUNDAY'

On another kind of killing field


There was a case before the United States Supreme Court last week in which a female coed, who'd been raped on her university campus, was trying to bring federal charges against her assailants. Interestingly -- in what must be some sort of nationwide Freudian slip -- her attackers were invariably identified in the media not with the simple qualifier of "fellow students," but rather, with one telling detail: "football players."

While it's hardly surprising that violent, brutish sports may encourage violent, brutish behavior, what's more complex (and troubling) is how such antisocial behavior is tolerated and excused in a country in thrall to its sports "heroes." (In the case cited above, the federal suit was brought because the university saw no need to discipline its athlete/rapists, a course of action all too common on American campuses.)

Director Oliver Stone tackles the gridiron with his latest, "Any Given Sunday," which employs professional football as a mirror to reflect a larger sickness within American society. Stone has long contended that violence -- institutional and personal -- is woven into the very social fabric of modern America. After examining the military ("Platoon," "Born on the 4th of July"), politics ("JFK," "Salvador"), business ("Wall Street") and media ("Talk Radio," "Natural Born Killers"), it seemed like the logical conclusion was sports.

"Any Given Sunday" shows its hand soon enough: Stone takes us right down onto the field, where, moving between the roar of the crowd and the players' inner silence of concentration, he plunges us into hit after hit, with brutally amped-up crunches on the soundtrack and wickedly visceral camera-work. (Yes, Stone's style remains as in-your-face as "NBK" or "U-Turn.")

One particularly sickening hit comes when Miami Sharks' quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) is mauled by a blitz and seriously injured, writhing in pain, unable to move his legs. As the TV announcers glibly prattle on ("Oh, that's gotta hurt. Let's look at that again"), the team's medic (James Woods) arrives on the field, only to berate Cap, asking him, "Am I going to have to get a stretcher for you? You're that old?"

Meanwhile, the team's coach, Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) is freaking out, especially when his backup QB gets injured on the next play. Going deep into the bench, he pulls up a novice, Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), to call the plays. Surprisingly, the guy does all right, but by improvising his own plays, not those being sent to him over his headset by the committee of computer-armed consultants.

Letting fame quickly go to his head, Beamen proceeds to defy his coach, bad-mouth his teammates (his success, as he brags to a talk-show host, is due to his "invisible juice"), dump his girlfriend, do product endorsements and -- sure enough -- make a rap video. ("My name is Willie Beamen/I keep the women creamin'.") He continues to do this, despite some attempted surrogate dad advice from D'Amato, until his teammates decide they've had enough, and stop covering his ass on the field.

The fact that Beamen is black -- a rarity among quarterbacks, despite African-American dominance of the sport -- throws some racial questions into the mix, while having Cameron Diaz as the female owner of the Sharks raises the issue of sexism as well. Just for good measure, there's money and religion too, with the Sharks donating $250,000 to "give something back to the city," while seeking a $250 million stadium built by taxpayer money, while a priest blesses his boys before they go onto the field and maul their opponents with a few dirty hits.

Stone reserves his special wrath for the media, though, TV in particular. As coach D'Amato observes, "It's TV. It's changed everything, the way we think. The first time they stopped the game to cut away to some f**king commercial, that was the end of it."

Of course, this being Oliver Stone, all these points are made with the subtlety of a 150-kg offensive linesman shot up full of horse testosterone. But by trying to cover so many angles, Stone finds no great insight in any of them. Given that Stone's technique lately is such that he could even film paint drying and make it interesting, this is still an engrossing film, even for those non-Americans who could care less about football. (A fact reflected by the 10 minutes of onfield play that has been cut from the export version of the film.)

But, I'm sad to report, Stone fumbles badly with minutes left to play. "Any Given Sunday" is, for a good two hours, an indictment of professional football -- the greed of overpaid players and rapacious owners, the hyped-up level of insult and injury on the field, the drugs/steroids pumped into the players to keep them playing and the overall triumph of "attitude" over "sportsmanship."

But despite all this, the film asks us to maintain a curiously sentimental streak for the sport, harking back to its supposedly hallowed days of yore. The cornball gets pretty damn thick when Stone can't resist that most tired sport-movie cliche of all, the inspirational halftime pep talk from the coach. Pacino enjoys roles in which he gets to roar a lot, but that can't help him here, with generic lines like "Either we heal now as a team, or we die as individuals." (Just throw in something about "the children," and this could have been a Clinton stump speech.)

It gets worse: A final touchdown dive is set to expansive synth flourishes, lightning in the sky and black-and-white newsreel flashbacks of former football greats. After two hours of showing us how venal, brutish, arrogant and obnoxious the entire game has become, Stone expects us to believe in its magic as well, but it's just not possible. Kind of like the trouble he had getting audiences to share Dick Nixon's pain; there just is no sympathy for the devil.

"Any Given Sunday" is playing at Hibiya Eiga and other theaters.


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