12 January 2000 | SKG-2
Not quite a touchdown, but at least Stone is back
Oliver Stone is one of the most, if not THE most, passionate filmmakers working today. He's also a talented filmmaker, which a lot of people seem to forget. When both his talent and passion are at full strength, the results are impressive(SALVADOR, PLATOON, JFK, NIXON). When the passion is still there, but the talent is tripped up by his passion and ambitions, he makes flawed movies which are still powerful(WALL STREET, TALK RADIO, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, HEAVEN AND EARTH). But when he goes outside of his passions, for either experiments(NATURAL BORN KILLERS), or to make "mainstream" movies(U-TURN), he misses wide. NATURAL BORN KILLERS, to me, was a worse film, but U-TURN was, in a way, even more dispiriting, because the former you could at least excuse as an experiment gone wrong, whereas the latter screamed "Cash-in!" You felt after watching Stone was too tired to fight anymore.
Well, as ANY GIVEN SUNDAY proves, Stone, like his on-screen alter-ego, Tony D'Amato(Al Pacino), may look tired, but he's still got fight left in him. Many have seen football as war, so it's appropriate Stone has long wanted to make a movie about football. And as Spike Lee did with HE GOT GAME, Stone wants us to see not only the glory of the actual playing(as well as how tough it is to earn that glory), but also the corrupt forces which are pervading it today. After all, we decry flashy players, and then complain about those who are too boring, we talk about tradition out of one side of our mouth and demand the game be updated out of the other side, we call white players who exhibit boorish behavior "colorful" while calling black players who exhibit similar behavior "punks"(and that's putting it mildly), we complain about players who are overpaid while thinking nothing of owners who spend lavishly on themselves and move teams around, we complain about football being too dominated by TV yet sit around like couch potatoes every Sunday and Monday night, we react with horror when players get hurt badly and get addicted to drugs, yet we yell at them to murder each other on the field and call those who don't chicken(to put it mildly), and so on.
This is a wide canvas to cover, and yet Stone does a pretty good job of it. Especially good is how the relationship between D'Amato and his new quarterback Willie Beamon(Jamie Foxx) encompasses a lot of that canvas. There are two scenes in particular which stand out; one where D'Amato sits with Willie on the plane and tries to talk to him, but can't think of anything which doesn't sound patronizing from Willie's point of view(like music, where D'Amato thinks the fact he's mentioning black jazz musicians is supposed to mean something), and the scene at D'Amato's house, where Beamon talks of how, in the past, "playing for the team" was code for "Know your place, boy," and have things really changed? Willie has to learn that playing for the team really does mean, as quarterback, getting them to respect you so they'll play for you, and Tony has to learn that tradition can't be stodgy, that it has to accept change.
Stone is less sure in other aspects. Cameron Diaz does a good job as the team's owner, but her character is a little too one-dimensional at times. It would have been more interesting to have here not just talk in terms of money, but that the game, to her, really is more interesting the way Willie plays it(maybe I'm biased, but I'm a fan of more pass-oriented games). And while I don't think Stone is as misogynist as he's been charged with in the past, certainly it's evident here. It's one thing to say there are groupies in football, it's another thing to delight in showing them. There are sympathetic woman here, particularly Ann-Margaret as Diaz's mother, who shows what being a football wife costs, and Lela Rochon as Willie's girlfriend, who is unwilling to have that happen to her(the scene at the party, where she feels both isolated from Willie and the other wives, is nicely drawn). Finally, Stone can't resist the ROCKY-type cliches near the end.
But though it's flawed, there's still a lot of power here. Except for Lauren Holly, who I'm not a big fan of, the acting is all around excellent, particularly Foxx. I was particularly impressed with how well the athletes did as actors, particularly Jim Brown(though he's an actor, so this isn't surprising) and Lawrence Taylor. And, of course, all the football scenes are terrific and feel real. It's always good when you see on screen what you can't see watching the game on TV, and Stone accomplishes that here. Call it not quite a touchdown, but a film which convinces us Stone still has fight left in him.