(a side note before my actual review. My streak of reviewing a disproportionately large number of great films continues. I am not complaining)
When I first saw Oliver Stone’s football epic, Any Given Sunday, back when it was released in 1999, I was unprepared for the complexity and maturity of this masterful film’s storytelling. I enjoyed the movie even then (it broke the mold of your typical sports story that I was tired of even at the age of 10), but it was a film with so much going on underneath the surface that it’s sort of a miracle that a blockbuster like this was even allowed to be made in the first place. It’s weird, in retrospect, that this was the first Oliver Stone film I ever watched considering the man’s large and diverse body of work (and it’s sad that this was probably Stone’s last great film). Though Any Given Sunday may not have the grand political ambitions of Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, it’s still a powerful and multi-layered film that achieves the rare Stone feat of also being highly accessible.
I call the film accessible because at the end of the day, if you don’t have the patience for the film’s darker subtexts, it’s still a rousing and hard-hitting football drama (which subverts many sports film stereotypes at every turn). But, the power and enduring strength of the film comes from it’s almost apocalyptic outlook on the world of professional football. The film is so dark and unyielding that it still sort of blows my mind that I didn’t pick up on it even as a kid. A man pushes himself to the brink of paralysis for a chance at a signing bonus. A player gets his eye knocked out of the back of his head during a particularly brutal hit. The coach visits hookers. The typical “back up quarterback called into the spotlight” turns into an egocentric gloryhound. A young owner is ruthless in her quest for the almighty dollar but she’s right in her criticism of the old-fashioned nature of the more “morally grounded” coach. The film is harsh in its realistic portrayal of the game.
In an alternate universe where a second professional football league doesn’t quite rival the NFL but still generates plenty of money, the Miami Sharks have fallen far from their halcyon glory days. Coach Tony D’amato (The Godfather‘s Al Pacino) has lost the fire in his belly, and his old-fashioned dedication to a running game and the basics of football is being torn apart in the face of modern high-powered offenses. To make matters worse, his aging star quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) gets injured during the middle of a four game losing streak at the end of the season while the ruthless young coach, Christina Pagniacci (Being John Malkovich‘s Cameron Diaz), is breathing down his neck looking for any excuse to fire him. When his second string quarterback gets injured in the same game, Tony is forced to rely on untested third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Django Unchained‘s Jamie Foxx) which brings a whole ‘nother set of complications.
It turns out that Willie is a exceptional quarterback. A natural athlete, Willie is as much a threat running as he is passing, and he can read defenses well enough to change plays to shock the other team well enough to get a sneak score. But, Willie’s quick rise to fame goes to his head in the worst way possible, and his own arrogance in his talents begins to alienate him from his teammates even as he’s leading his team to victory. All the while, a slimy team physician (Salvador‘s James Woods) is over-prescribing pain medication and letting injured players stay in the game even though their very lives are at risk because it might be the difference between a loss and victory. As Tony tries to keep his team apart (as Willie’s newfound arrogance starts to tear it apart), the Miami Sharks have a realistic shot at a playoffs berth that may do more damage to the team than if they had simply lost the rest of their games.
One of the strengths of the film is the bordering on unbelievable depth of its cast. This is easily one of the best performances of the the late period of Pacino’s career and the only one that seems to top it off the top of my head is Glengarry Glen Ross. Tony is world-weary and beaten down and a loser despite the great man people claim he used to be. But, on those rare occasions, we see sparks of the man he could be, and Pacino makes the transitions between those two different Tony’s a magical thing to behold. This was the first performance from Jamie Foxx that gave us a hint that maybe he could be a great actor. And while this isn’t his turn in Collateral or Ray, it was still a hell of a performance from an actor mostly known for light comedic roles at the time. Hell, Oliver Stone manages to even coax a great performance from Cameron Diaz who is a second-rate actress at best.
And, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Alongside his performance in Salvador, I think James Woods part as the unethical team physician is one of the best of his entire career. And it works because it’s clear that Harvey isn’t entirely evil. He honestly believes he’s doing what these players want and what is best for the team even though it violates the Hippocratic oath. Dennis Quaid, another actor that I’m not otherwise overly fond of, shines as the football star who’s over the hill and then some but pushes himself to the breaking point because he doesn’t have any other options in life. And, one of the unsung performances of the film is from real life football legend Lawrence Taylor who more or less plays a fictionalized version of himself in the movie as a football pro with one too many concussions.
Oliver Stone’s direction has always been peerless (even when his storytelling can be hamfisted and decidedly unsubtle), and Any Given Sunday is no exception. The only other football film I can think of that captures the excitement and energy of football better than Any Given Sunday is the football documentary Undefeated. Utilizing the combination of traditional cinematography and found footage that he pioneered in JFK (an Oliver Stone film I’m still yet to see), Any Given Sunday is a dynamic experience that both places the audience in the glitz and glamor of professional football but it also captures the brutal reality of getting hit by three different 280 pound men at once. I’m actually not sure if football has ever been portrayed this brutally from the perspective of the sheer hell the game puts its players through.
If one can make any complaints about the film, they’d have to be relegated towards its pacing and length. Any Given Sunday is a great film, but it would probably be a better film if it were about twenty minutes shorter. I’m not sure where those cuts could be made. Any Given Sunday is like a house of cards where removing one piece would weaken the whole structure, but I’m sure there’s a way that this tale could have been told more efficiently. By the two and a half hour mark, my patience began to wear slightly thin (so thank god then that the final playoff game climax was so exciting). Also, one bit of the ending seemed at least partially disingenuous because one character’s transformation seemed too neat and upbeat. Although, the final stinger of the film subverts that one last time so maybe I’m over-reacting.
I’ll draw this review to a close. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until like 4:30 PM and I hadn’t gone to bed until like 7 AM), and I want to finish the second season of Star Trek. I also need to watch Eve’s Bayou before it leaves my Netflix Instant queue. So, I’ll leave you with these parting thoughts. I’m not sure if I can think of a non-documentary football film that’s better than Any Given Sunday (that specification rules out Go Tigers! and Undefeated). It was Oliver Stone’s last great film and arguably his last good film, period. If you have even a passing interest in the game, Any Given Sunday is a must-see film for its condemnation of the infiltration of money and greed into professional sports. As a scathing indictment of the narcissism that sadly rules the pros today, Any Given Sunday is an unqualified success story.
Final Score: A-