[Screen It]

(1999) (Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz) (R)

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Drama: A professional football coach clashes with his team's owner and their hotshot, egotistical third-string quarterback as they try to make their way to the playoffs.
Despite having previously won two AFFA (Associated Football Franchises of America) championships, head coach Tony D'Amato (AL PACINO), a man who's devoted most of his life to the game, is on the hot seat. His team, the Miami Sharks, has lost several games in a row and must win their remaining ones to make it to the playoffs.

The team's president and co-owner, Christina Pagniacci (CAMERON DIAZ), isn't particularly happy with D'Amato. Despite jointly owning the organization with her alcoholic mother, Margaret Pagniacci (ANN-MARGRET), after they inherited from the beloved former owner, Christina runs the show. As such, she and Ed Phillips (JAMES KAREN), the general manager, and Johnny Polito (GIANNI RUSSO), the vice-president, are more interested in the bottom line than in the game, players, or coaching staff and try to blackmail Miami Mayor Tyrone Smalls (CLIFTON DAVIS) into doing more for the team financially.

All of that's bad for D'Amato because with the injury of the team's veteran quarterback, Jack "Cap" Rooney (DENNIS QUAID) - whose wife Cindy (LAUREN HOLLY) won't stand for talk of him retiring -- Christina wants the young and charismatic third-string quarterback, Willie Beamen (JAMIE FOXX), to lead the team and turn their offense into a more exciting, and thus profitable, direction.

With the aid of offensive coordinator Nick Crozier (AARON ECKHART) and Montezuma Monroe (JIM BROWN), the team's tough defensive coordinator, D'Amato tries to ignore Christina and lead his team to victory. Yet, with Beamen's sudden ascension into star-status, a variety of complications set in.

As Beamen becomes more egotistical and less of a team player - which progressively infuriates his longtime girlfriend, Vanessa Struthers (LELA ROCHON), other players, such as Julian Washington (LL COOL J), the star running back, and Luther "Shark" Lavay (LAWRENCE TAYLOR), a veteran linebacker who continues to play despite the very real possibility of permanent injury, begin to despise him.

The complications continue to mount as the team's orthopedist, Dr. Harvey Mandrake (JAMES WOODS), agrees to help Christina no matter the related potential risks to the team's players - a point that stirs up suspicion and disbelief in Dr. Ollie Powers (MATTHEW MODINE), the team internist. D'Amato must also contend with Jack Rose (JOHN C. McGINLEY), a colorful sportswriter and TV anchor who blames most of the Sharks' problems on the coach.

With D'Amato trying to relieve the building pressure by hitting the bottle or enjoying the company of a young woman, Mandy (ELIZABETH BERKELY), he pulls out every coaching trick he knows to keep the owner of his back, his team motivated, and win enough games to take them to the playoffs.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Although baseball may be the symbolic representation of American sports and is obviously synonymous with the American ideal of hot dogs and apple pie, football is the sport that draws the most attention from all age groups. After all, and among all of its many levels of competition, it's the most watched sport and it's almost always the high school quarterback, and not pitcher or basketball guard, who ends up dating the homecoming queen.

Of course for those who've never played the game on an organized, full-gear level - the so-called armchair quarterbacks and coaches - they've never experienced the real game and what it's like to don the pad, cleats and a gritty determination to play their best.

Or, in my brief stint in high school football, to avoid being killed. While I'd always played backyard tackle football, the game took on a completely different level once on such a team. Of course it didn't help that I was miserably small or that wearing the helmet, shoulder pads and related items made just running down the field, let alone trying to catch the ball a completely different experience than playing in shorts and tennis shoes. Then there was the fact that wearing such gear seemingly gave other players free reign (and an unlimited license) to attempt to rearrange anyone else's vertebrae with bone jarring hits and tackles. Not surprisingly, my high school football career didn't last long.

Upon arriving in a small, Division 1-AA college, I learned that the "behemoths" of my high school team were actually munchkins, and then later seeing "real" college and then gargantuan professional football players up close and personal, I realized that fate intervened during those early high school days to prevent what would have been a suicidal mission had I chosen - and been lucky enough - to continue onward and upward through the subsequent levels of the sport.

The obvious pinnacle for football players is to make it to the pros, where Darwinism runs rampant and the lesser beings simply don't make it. While the aforementioned armchair quarterbacks may criticize such players for getting tired and/or hurt and for dropping balls and missing plays, they don't realize the true battlefield upon which the characters play.

And that's only half of the battle, what with off-the field contract negotiations, run-ins with the coach and/or owner, and the fact that there's always going to be someone younger, faster and stronger nipping at your heels and that age eventually makes one "human" once again.

For many years, various films such as "The Longest Yard" and "Semi-Tough" have portrayed the sport in various ways, but the best one at doing that from both the business and game standpoints was "North Dallas Forty." Starring Nick Nolte and Mac Davis, the 1979 film was a cynical, but well-received look at the sport. Just like any "old" veteran player, however, a young upstart is bound to come along and eventually take its place, and that's probably what's going to happen with the release of Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday."

While the director's reputation may make some (or many) think that such a film of his would involve some sort of conspiracy - the whole sport being a front for the mob or even something as simple as controversial instant reply calls or why it costs so much to get a hot dog and soft drink at a game - it's actually something approaching an epic portrayal of the sport.

Named after the old saying that on any given Sunday any one team can beat another, no matter how good or bad either might be, this may be the most realistically visceral portrayal of the game ever filmed. Loud, extravagantly over-the-top, way too long at nearly three hours and featuring way too many characters, the film is an elaborate and electric look at nearly everything connected to the game.

From the old-fashioned coach battling the pragmatic and emotionally detached owner to the veterans dealing with hotshot newcomers, to the people covering the sport and those directly affected by their loved ones involvement with it, Stone attempts to cover as many bases as possible with his story here. As such, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Stone, who co-wrote the script with John Logan ("Bats," HBO's "RKO281") that's based on a screen story by Logan and Daniel Pyne ('Pacific Heights," "The Hard Way"), actually combined three separate stories into what finally makes it onto the screen here.

Like Stone's more recent efforts - "U-Turn" and "Natural Born Killers" - part of this film falls into the avant-garde category where the director occasionally goes crazy with the wild and varied cinematography, rapid fire editing, and insertion of mostly unrelated visuals (such as momentary lighting bolts). While that certainly invigorates the proceedings and manages to keep the viewer hyped up if not unbalanced, a little of that goes a long way and some may begin to tire of the visual theatrics.

Fortunately, they and what appears to be a bad case of gene splicing of the NFL and MTV eventually calm down after an hour or so as the story begins to take shape. What doesn't stop, though, and what may be one of the more impressive features of the film, is Stone's recreation of what it must be like to actually play the game of professional football. Visually and viscerally reminiscent of the "you are there" camera work and related feelings of "Saving Private Ryan," this film is a physically realistic portrayal of life on the field in what's literally a bone-jarring fashion.

While the thunderous sound system of a good theater obviously helps drive home that point, the camera angles, movement and sound editing all add up to a wild experience that, similar to "Ryan's" possible effect on causing recruits to rethink their decision to be all that they can be, could have some kids questioning whether football is good for their health.

Of course the actual game is only half of the sport, and Stone makes sure to direct as much attention at the financial, behind the scenes action. While the players may be field warriors, the coaches and owners in professional sports can't be pushovers and Stone does a great job in portraying them here through Al Pacino ("The Insider," "Heat") and Cameron Diaz ("Being John Malkovich," "There's Something About Mary"). Although the latter isn't especially known for playing the "brass-balled" type of character, Diaz actually does a rather decent job of portraying a ruthless owner only interested in the bottom line.

The actor playing her nemesis, however, has had a great deal more experience in such matters. While some may criticize Pacino for essentially playing the same sort of character, no matter what the film - but only operating at differing levels ranging from simmer to boil - he delivers another riveting and standout performance as the coach who realizes his days and ways of thinking may be numbered.

As earlier mentioned, the film simply has too many characters and related subplots. Thus, some of them, including one featuring the now nearly always villainous James Woods ("The General's Daughter," "Contact") and Matthew Modine ("Cutthroat Island," "Bye-Bye Love") feel somewhat shortchanged despite being congruous with the overall plot. The same holds true for John C. McGinley ("Office Space," "The Rock") as the instigator sportswriter and Elizabeth Berkley ("Showgirls," "The Real Blonde") as a groupie type hooker.

Beyond the Pacino/Diaz conflict, the next best involves the quarterback feud between the characters played by Dennis Quaid ("The Parent Trap" and his other football film, "Everybody's All American") as the veteran player and Jamie Foxx ("Booty Call," TV's "In Living Color") as the young, hotshot upstart. Although they have relatively little face-to-face sparks as does the coach vs. owner conflict, their related stories are equally as interesting.

Meanwhile, the rest of the film is filled with a plethora of stars and former athletes, such as LL Cool J ("Deep Blue Sea") as the star running back, Ann-Margret ("Grumpier Old Men") as Christina's alcoholic mother, Lauren Holly ("No Looking Back") as Cap's status-obsessed wife, and the chameleon-like Aaron Eckhart ("In the Company of Men") as the offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, former pro players Jim Brown and Lawrence Taylor are joined by the likes of Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas and Barry Switzer who appear in cameos (along with Stone himself as a color commentator).

The moments where the movie shines - and is absolutely riveting - are during the heated one on one "discussions" (okay, they're just loud arguments presented at full boil), and the full visceral impact segments of the games themselves. Even the final game of the film - that goes right down to the last play and includes the obligatory but still satisfying rah-rah coach's speech - is completely engaging and, due to the somewhat cynical way in which Stone has mounted the story, a bit hard to predict.

Where the movie flounders is in its retreading of familiar and stereotypical subject matter as related to the sport, the sheer number of characters that causes many to be lost in the shadows, and the viscerally assaultive way in which Stone presents much of the first half.

Despite and/or because of that, one can't help but be mesmerized at times by the film and its tremendous, all-star cast. I only wished, however, that the film was at least thirty minutes shorter and that some of the unnecessary visual theatrics were jettisoned to make the picture a more satisfying and cohesive whole. Flawed but fascinating and occasionally quite impressive in both its technical merits and some highly charged performances, the film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 17, 1999 / Posted December 22, 1999

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