Friday, April 25, 2014

Highlander

For my money, Highlander (1986) has one of the coolest premises of any adventure/fantasy film to come out of the 1980s – a decade chock full of classic genre films. It depicts a timeless battle between beings known as “Immortals,” warriors that have lived for centuries and are scattered all over the world. They can identify the presence of another through senses known as “The Quickening,” and can only be killed by decapitation. These immortal beings are bound together in an eternal contest that culminates at a time known as “The Gathering” where those that remain will battle it for the final Prize, where the last remaining Immortal receives the combined powers from all the others of his kind that have been killed. This fascinating premise is ripe for all kinds of possibilities, which may explain why Highlander, despite its lackluster box office, went on to spawn three sequels, a live-action television show and even an animated one.

From an early scene that features dizzying camerawork dramatically swooping and gliding its way through Madison Square Garden before zooming in on Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert introduced in moody noir lighting), Highlander flaunts its stylistic flourishes with pride. This continues with an exciting swordfight deep in the bowels of the legendary auditorium as MacLeod faces off against another Immortal by the name of Iman Fasil (Peter Diamond) in an underground parking garage. These fights are the highlights of the film and director Russell Mulcahy fills them with sparking swords, flips, near misses, atmospheric rain effects and the climactic beheading that ends all battles between these beings. It isn’t mentioned often, but Highlander has some truly expertly choreographed swordplay that I would rank on par with the Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader duel in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but still not as good as the one in The Princess Bride (1987), which is still the gold standard for that era. That being said, the ones in Highlander are exciting and visceral.

The opening fight brilliantly sets the stylish tone for the rest of the film as it proceeds to flash back and forth from MacLeod’s days as a 16th century highlander, where he first discovered immortality, to the present day where his centuries-old feud with an Immortal named The Kurgan (Clancy Brown) culminates in The Gathering in the heart of New York City. After the opening battle, MacLeod, now going under the name of Russell Nash, is immediately picked up for questioning and crosses paths with Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), a forensics expert intrigued by the enigmatic murder suspect and the rare weapon that was used.


At the time of Highlander’s release, French actor Christopher Lambert was at the height of his international stardom, fresh from the high-profile role in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). If his thick accent is jarring, he certainly looks the part, especially in the contemporary scenes with his slick ‘80s attire and brooding good looks. At times, he struggles with his dialogue, which is a bit distracting, and it doesn’t help that he’s sometimes saddled with clunky words, especially his initial interaction with the police, which is laughably bad.

Once you get past Lambert’s dodgy on again, off again Scottish accent, the flashback scenes come to life once Sean Connery appears as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, a fellow Immortal that teaches MacLeod about the Quickening and prepares him for battle with Kurgan. Connery brings his trademark charisma to these scenes playing a gregarious adventurer with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he puts Lambert’s MacLeod through his paces. There’s a fantastic swashbuckling vibe to these scenes, which makes Ramirez’s demise that much more painful because of how much we’ve grown to admire him in the short time he’s on-screen. As an aside, I always find it amusing how the film doesn’t address the jarring clash of Ramirez’s Spanish name with Connery’s Scottish accent and then throws in the detail that his character is Egyptian!

A film this steeped in fantastical elements needs a larger than life villain and has one with Clancy Brown’s muscular performance as Kurgan. He has an imposing presence and clearly relishes playing up his character’s nastier tendencies. Kurgan loves being an evil Immortal, plain and simple. Brown has a wonderfully gravelly voice, which he uses to full effect when he openly taunts MacLeod every chance he gets. Actors love playing bad guys in films because it allows them to cut loose and play colorful characters chock full of bad behavior. You can tell that Brown is having a blast with the role as evident in the way Kurgan gleefully torments Brenda after kidnapping her and driving into oncoming traffic just to scare her. To add insult to injury, he even mocks her terrified reaction. I also like how, in the present day, Kurgan dresses up like a punk rocker, which is in sharp contrast to MacLeod’s expensive suits.


Roxanne Hart plays the intrepid Brenda Wyatt who has the smarts and the tenacity to figure out who Nash is and in the process fall in love with the Immortal. For most of the film she plays a fairly proactive character until the last third when she’s reduced to a damsel in distress as MacLeod and Kurgan battle it out. The scene where Kurgan terrorizes Brenda is an interesting one in that it is where Highlander dips its toe in the horror genre as the villain takes his captive on a guided tour of New York all to the strains of Queen covering “Theme from New York, New York.” He delights in pushing her to see how much of his kamikaze driving she can take until passing out. To be fair, she is clearly out of her depth and can’t hope to compete with the likes of these beings. Hart is obviously beautiful, but there’s a down-to-earth or levelheaded quality to Brenda that grounds the character – something that seems absent from a lot of adventure/fantasy films in the 1990s and beyond.

Gregory Widen wrote the screenplay for Highlander as a class project while studying film at UCLA. It was inspired by a hitchhiking trip he made across Europe when he was 20-years-old. “I was standing in the Tower of London amid the world’s largest armory collection. And it suddenly struck me, what if I owned all this and had actually worn the armor in battle?” Based on this idea, he wrote a script that his screenwriting teacher really liked. He gave Widen a lot of encouragement and support. This gave him the confidence to send his script to various agents and it was eventually bought by producers Peter S. Davis and Bill Panzer in 1982. They were fans of adventure films and it was this element that drew them to Widen’s script. It was originally much darker in tone before being rewritten by Peter Bellwood and then Larry Ferguson, much to Widen’s chagrin: “Along the way it has gotten more black and white in the lines drawn between who is good and who is evil,” and this was done by altering the dialogue to “give the characters a different feel.” However, the producers weren’t happy with their rewrites and brought Widen back in to rewrite the rewrites!

Early on, the producers decided that the material required an unconventional approach and opted for a director that could bring a unique style to the film. They picked Russell Mulcahy after seeing his first film Razorback (1984) and a collection of his music videos. He was originally slated to direct Heavy Metal: The Movie (1981), but when no one could agree on a central storyline he moved on and read the script for Highlander: “It leapt off the page as instant visuals.”


Kurt Russell was originally cast as MacLeod and Catherine Mary Stewart as Brenda, but the former decided not to do it based on advice from his girlfriend Goldie Hawn, while the latter “suddenly became unavailable.” Christopher Lambert was cast based on his work in Greystoke and Luc Besson’s Subway (1985). He read the script and loved the idea of playing an immortal. Sean Connery received an impressive one million dollars for only seven days of shooting, which required long days in order to complete all of his scenes.

Financed by Thorn-EMI Screen Entertainment on a budget of $16 million, Highlander was shot over 70 days starting in late April 1985 with filming taking place on location in Scotland during May before returning to London in June. Principal photography ended in July after two weeks in New York City. Mulcahy was used to working very fast and shooting a lot of film. During the first week of filming some people on the production had difficulty keeping up and quit as a result. For certain sequences, he drew on other films for inspiration. For example, the swordfight between Ramirez and Kurgan was inspired by the films of Errol Flynn and the skeleton swordfight in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

Connery and Lambert were taught a stylized fighting style that combined samurai technique with swordsmanship styles through the centuries, including intensive fencing training. English stunt coordinator Peter Diamond claimed that the two actors did 95% of their own swordplay and stunts. The climactic battle was originally supposed to take place on the Statue of Liberty, but when it featured prominently in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), they re-staged it under the famous Silvercup sign, which the producers spotted on a location scout.


Highlander did not receive very many positive notices when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Walter Goodman wrote, “Since none of the characters makes sense even on the movie’s own terms, Highlander keeps on exploding for almost two hours, with nothing at stake.” Gene Siskel gave it one-and-a-half stars and wrote, “Oh, how one wishes for some human moments in Highlander. If these are indeed the people who are going to save our planet, as the film suggests in quick conclusion, well, maybe it’s a good time to consider buying an acre in Montana or someplace else remote.” Leonard Maltin also gave it the same rating and wrote, “Former rock video director Mulcahy’s relentless showy camera moves may have you reaching for the Dramamine.” However, People magazine, of all periodicals, wrote, “This picture is a mesmerizing triumph of style over substance. Director Russell Mulcahy, a music video director, has turned what might have been just another wacky fantasy adventure into a moody combination of Blade Runner, The Terminator and your last really good nightmare.”

Highlander is a stylish film whose look epitomized the ‘80s music video aesthetic thanks to the flashy direction by Mulcahy who helmed some of the most iconic videos of the era, including ones for bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and The Buggles. Speaking of music, from the rousing anthem, “Princes of the Universe,” that kicks things off, the Queen songs that feature prominently in the film act almost as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. This is particularly evident with “Who Wants to Live Forever,” a ballad that plays during the scene where MacLeod outlives his 16th century Scottish wife (Beatie Edney) and serves to underline the tragic aspect of his existence. He will outlive any woman that he becomes romantically involved with and watch them get old while he doesn’t age.

Highlander delivers on its intriguing premise with an action-packed adventure featuring a hero that is a bit of a tragic figure – doomed to live forever, always looking over his shoulder for others of his kind that are determined to kill him so that they can achieve the Prize. Widen’s screenplay wisely doesn’t try to over-explain the film’s mythology, which allows us to fill in the gaps by using our imagination – something that is not evident in the subsequent sequels.



SOURCES

Jones, Alan. “The Making of Highlander.” Cinefantastique. May 1986.

Pirani, Adam. “On Location with Highlander.” Starlog. March 1986.


Rabkin, William. “Greg Widen – The Route to Writing Highlander.” Starlog. June 1986.


Further reading: check out John Kenneth Muir's excellent look at this film over at his blog.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The X-Files: Fight the Future

When the first X-Files film came out in 1998, the television show was at the height of its popularity. It made sense that its creator Chris Carter would capitalize on his show’s status within the popular culture zeitgeist by making the jump to the big screen and thereby placing the world he created on a larger canvas. In keeping with the template set forth by the show, there were two routes he could have gone with Fight the Future – a stand-alone adventure or tap into the show’s ongoing storyline: a complex government conspiracy to cover-up the existence of extra-terrestrials. He choose the latter and in doing so had to tread a fine line between making the film accessible to the average filmgoer while still appealing to the show’s dedicated fanbase.

In North Texas, a group of young boys uncover human remains in a pit. One of them (Lucas Black) falls in and is infected with some kind of black liquid. Naturally, the United States government quickly moves in and takes the boy. We meet FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) in Dallas investigating a terrorist bomb threat on a government building. The X-Files division has been officially closed by their superiors and so they have been relegated to routine work (well, routine for them anyway). Mulder and Scully discover the bomb and narrowly avoid being blown up in a thrilling sequence that eerie evoked the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. As the dust settles, questions remain – who did it and why? And why did the lone FBI agent (Terry O’Quinn) left to disarm the bomb do nothing?

Fight the Future starts with our heroes really up against it what with the X-Files closed and Mulder and Scully split up after the fallout in Texas. When Mulder is at his lowest, he meets a friend of his father’s – Dr. Alvin Kurtzweil (played rather nicely by Martin Landau) who tells him that the explosion was part of a larger cover-up involving the boy and the mysterious black liquid. Whatever is going on you can bet it involves the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), a shadowy government operative in charge of keeping the government’s involvement with extraterrestrials a secret. Mulder and Scully spend the rest of the film trying to find the answers to these questions.


It’s good to see the chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson worked just as well on the big screen as it did on the small one. Having done five seasons of the show prior to the film, the two actors were, by then, quite familiar with their characters and made the transition with ease. Carter placed more emphasis on the "relationship" between Mulder and Scully in Fight the Future. Over the course of the show they grew to care deeply for one another, but without actually expressing it sexually. This touching concern for one another is usually downplayed in the series, but in the film it provides a strong, humanistic core instead of relying solely on government conspiracies and things that go bump in the night to keep our attention. That being said, Carter isn’t above playfully messing with a faction of fan that wanted to see Mulder and Scully become romantically involved (they almost kiss!).

Duchovny is good as the dry-witted believer who buys into the alien conspiracy because of a personal involvement, while Anderson works well playing off of him as the jaded cynic who relies on science and logic to make sense of the things they encounter. What makes Mulder and Scully work so well is their chemistry and how their respective strengths and weaknesses compliment each other. By this point, they’ve been through so much together and seen so much that they genuinely care about one another. As a result, fans became emotionally invested in their episodic adventures, which is in turn kicked up a notch with the film.

The X-Files was a T.V. show that always had a distinctly cinematic look to it. This approach set it apart from most shows at the time that opted for a bland, homogenous look. It was nice to see Carter enjoying a substantial increase in budget ($66 million!) while not losing the intimate appeal of the show – Mulder and Scully. With a significantly larger budget, Carter expanded the scope of the series by sending Mulder and Scully to the farthest reaches of the globe, from Washington, D.C. to England to Tunisia. This results in some truly breathtaking landscape shots that could not be recreated on T.V. – their impact would not be as great. It’s not an insult to call Fight the Future an expensive episode of the show.


While the film does attempt to bring newbies up to speed – albeit via a clumsy exposition scene where a drunk Mulder tells a bartender (Glenne Headly wasted in a cameo) what he does for a living – it largely appeals to fans of the show and assumes that anyone watching is familiar with its mythology. Carter also trots out several of the show’s recurring characters, like the gruff Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), Mulder and Scully’s hard-nosed boss, and the trio of conspiracy theorists known as the Lone Gunmen whose charming wackiness is relegated to a disappointing cameo that feels tacked on.

The show’s creator Chris Carter and co-producer Frank Spotnitz came up with the plot for Fight the Future over eight days and described it as “an adventure story with political under currents, more like The Parallax View than a monster episode of X-Files.” Carter wrote the screenplay for the film during the break between seasons four and five. In addition, he had to anticipate what would happen in the latter season – before it was even made! “It was all fresh ground for us. We had to plan long in advance.”

Carter hand-picked regular series director Rob Bowman to helm the film, which was a wise choice considering he had worked on over 20 episodes. He also helped regular cast members make the adjustment from T.V. to film seamlessly because of the rapport he already had with them. Principal photography took place during the spring and summer of 1997. The cast were certainly aware of the difference between making the show and working on the film and in the case of Gillian Anderson thrived on it: “What was exciting about it was the intensity of it. Knowing that there are three, four, five, six cameras rolling at one time getting different angles, different aspects of what’s happening.”


Carter was certainly aware of the risks of making a film while the show was still airing original episodes: “The movie was a calculated risk. You always take the chance of damaging the series because if the movie fails, people might not come back to the show.” In addition, the studio was worried that the film’s plot would be too dense or unclear for the uninitiated moviegoer not familiar with the show, but Carter claimed that it “will bring new people into our ongoing story, but won’t offend the hardcore viewer.”

Fight the Future received mostly positive to mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “I liked the way the movie looked, and the unforced urgency of Mulder and Scully, and the way the plot was told through verbal puzzles and visual revelations, rather than through boring action scenes.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Duchovny sustains enough cool, deadpan intellect and suppressed passion to give the story a center. Ms. Anderson has the harsher, more restrictive role, but she plays it with familiar hardboiled glamour.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Distrust, anxiety, the dread-heavy need to constantly peel away layers of lies and cover-ups in search of The Truth imbue this honest first feature with just the right overtones of late-20th-century anxiety.” However, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “The X-Files movie is really just a two-hour teaser for the series’s sixth season. And little else.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Things get more or less explained by the close, but the fun of The X-Files is clearly more in the creation of unease than in the cleaning up of mysteries.”

Fight the Future works well as a bridge between seasons five and six, expanding the show’s mythology in a way that justified making the jump to the big screen instead of feeling like they were going for quick cash grab on the part of the studio. Carter successfully raises the stakes in the film by splitting up Mulder and Scully and shedding more light on another part of the alien conspiracy. Much like the show, the film works best when it follows Mulder down shadowy alleyways and dimly-lit rooms talking to men who feed him tantalizing bits of information about the larger conspiracy at work. These scenes illustrate one of the primary influences on the show – paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s – and how Carter and his writers cleverly fused them with stories about aliens and the supernatural.



SOURCES

Carter, Bill. “X-Files Tries to Keep Its Murky Promise.” The New York Times. November 7, 1998.

McIntyre, Gina. “Action Anderson.” The X-Files Movie Official Magazine. June 1998.


Tucker, Ken. “Playing with Fire.” Entertainment Weekly. June 12, 1998.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

When we last saw Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), he had just helped save New York City from an alien invasion and was still acclimatizing himself to modern life having been frozen in ice since World War II as chronicled in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The sequel, The Winter Soldier (2014), takes place two years after the events depicted in The Avengers (2012) and sees Cap working as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a top-secret spy organization that, among other things, deals with the fallout from the adventures of superheroes like Iron Man and Thor. However, as hinted at in The Avengers and the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there is something rotten at the core of the spy organization and Cap soon finds himself not only embroiled in a vast conspiracy, but also confronting someone from his past he thought had died in the war. The result is a fantastic fusion of the super hero movie with the conspiracy thriller.

Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are now a team and as the film begins they intercept a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. ship in the Indian Ocean that has been hijacked by Algerian terrorists led by French mercenary Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre). In a nice touch, the filmmakers manage to transform Batroc, who was a pretty ridiculous villain in the comic books, into a bit of a badass. Afterwards, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lets Cap in behind the scenes, showing him three Helicarriers armed with state-of-the-art jet fighters that are linked to spy satellites created to anticipate global threats in a program known as Project Insight.

Cap is not at all comfortable with Fury’s secret project and the notion of creating a climate of fear that potentially robs people of their basic freedoms. However, when Fury suspects something is wrong with Project Insight he voices concern to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Immediately afterwards, Fury is attacked on the streets of Washington, D.C. by S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives and an enigmatic figure known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Fury barely escapes and finds Cap before being gravely injured. It’s up to Cap and Black Widow, along with the help of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a war veteran and post-traumatic stress disorder counselor that Cap befriends early on, to uncover the corruption rampant in S.H.I.E.L.D. and stop it.


Chris Evans does an excellent job of reprising his role of Captain America and providing layers to a character that is essentially a super strong boy scout who comes from a simpler time. He is now immersed in a convoluted conspiracy where he doesn’t know who to trust. As a result, he has to do a bit of soul-searching, which Evans handles well. He also has nice chemistry with Scarlett Johansson, especially when Cap and Black Widow go off the grid together and try to find the Winter Soldier. There’s a hint of sexual tension going on as two people with wildly different backgrounds and approaches to life are forced to look out for each other. Johansson finally gets some seriously significant screen-time than she did in Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Avengers and it’s nice to see her character fleshed out a bit more as well as giving her plenty of action sequences to kick ass in.

A film like this, which intentionally raises the stakes in comparison to the first one needs a credible threat that makes us feel like Cap and his allies are in real danger and the Winter Soldier does that. He rarely speaks, but looks cool and is extremely dangerous so that we anticipate the inevitable showdown between him and Cap. He isn’t some anonymous bad guy, but something of a tortured soul and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote the first film) offers some tantalizing details of his backstory and how it ties in with Cap’s past.

Markus and McFeely have crafted a solid script that is well-executed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They establish just the right rhythm and tone with well-timed lulls between action sequences that are used wisely to move the plot along and offer little moments of character development that keep us invested in the characters and their story. For example, there is a nice scene where Cap goes to an exhibit dedicated to his World War II exploits at the Smithsonian, which succinctly recaps his origin story in a rather poignant way that reminds us of his internal conflict of being stuck in the past while living in the present. One way he deals with this is befriending Sam and they both bond over being war veterans – albeit from very different eras. In addition, the script features several well-timed one-liners and recurring jokes that add moment of much-welcomed levity to an otherwise serious film.


The action sequences are exciting and expertly choreographed with the exception of the opening boat siege, which takes place at night and involves way too much Paul Greengrass/Jason Bourne shaky, hand-held camerawork. Once the filmmakers get that out of their system and Cap takes on Batroc, the camera settles down and is a decent distance from the combatants so that we can see what’s going on. There is also an intense car chase involving an injured Fury in an increasingly bullet-ridden SUV that has the feel of the exciting car chase in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and a little later Cap takes out an elevator full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents intent on neutralizing him that evokes an elevator scene in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). The fights between Cap and the Winter Soldier are fast and frenetic, but never confusing as they convey the frighteningly deadly speed of the latter’s moves, so much so that I really felt like Cap was in some serious danger.

Drawing elements from writer Ed Brubaker and illustrator Steven Epting’s 2005 “Winter Soldier” storyline in the comic book, this film has a decidedly darker tone than The First Avenger as our hero is nearly killed on several occasions and his world is shaken to the very core as he uncovers all sorts of ugly secrets. In this respect, The Winter Soldier is reminiscent of paranoid conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s and this is acknowledged with the casting of Robert Redford who starred in two of the best films from that era – Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976).


It is refreshing to see a sequel that isn’t merely content to rehash the first film. Where The First Avenger was essentially a mash-up of a super hero movie and war movie, The Winter Soldier is super hero movie and a political thriller with events that are a major game changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the past, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the connective tissue that linked several of the films together that led up to The Avengers. It should be interesting to see how the events depicted in this film set the stage for Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015). That being said, The Winter Soldier has its own self-contained story that is engrossing with a lot at stake for our hero and this in turn gets you invested in what is happening to produce a rare super hero movie with heart.

Friday, April 4, 2014

North Dallas Forty

There are few sports movies that rise above the tried and true conventions of the genre. For every Bull Durham (1988) that gets it right, there are a hundred ones like The Scout (1994). The 1970s was a particularly strong decade for sports movies with the likes of The Bad News Bears (1976) and Slap Shot (1977) offering gritty, funny takes on baseball and hockey respectively. These films dug a little deeper and were unafraid to present a cynical and irreverent look at sports, offering unfiltered insight inside the locker room. More so than these two sports, American football was scrutinized and satirized with comedies like The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977).

It was North Dallas Forty (1979), however, that stirred up a fair amount of controversy with its highly critical look at the professional game. Adapted from Peter Gent’s novel of the same name, the film focused on the hard-partying and hard-playing team known as the North Dallas Bulls, based on the Dallas Cowboys. Gent had played for them for five seasons and then wrote a fictionalized account about his experiences. His uncompromising take on the physical punishment players endured on the field and the toll that the mind games of the coaches took on them in the locker room was authentically conveyed in director Ted Kotcheff’s film. So much so that upon its release there were accusations that the NFL blackballed some of the players that appeared in the film.

The first image we get of Nick Nolte’s character is his disheveled mug waking up after what I can only imagine was a hell of a bender the night before. His nose is bloodied and he looks beaten up. There are all kinds of scars running up and down a leg from numerous surgeries. Phil is a wreck and one has to give Nolte credit for having zero vanity as an actor. Sure enough, a brief series of flashbacks show Phil taking several hits during a game, which result in the run-down human being we see shuffling stiffly through his home.


Later that day, a few of his teammates take him on a hunting trip. Phil uses this as an opportunity to lament his lack of playing time to his friend and team quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis) who tells him, “You gotta learn how to fool ‘em. Give them what they want. I know, I’ve been foolin’ them bastards for years.” Phil replies, “If you start pretending to be somebody else that’s when you’re gonna end up being somebody else.” Seth lays it out for him, “You had better learn how to play the game. And I don’t just mean the game of football. Hell, we’re all whores anyway, might as well be the best.” This conversation establishes North Dallas Forty’s central theme and the dilemma that Phil faces. Does he play by the rules or try to fight the system? It’s also a really good bit of acting as these guys cut through the dumb jock stereotype.

Of course, the next scene demonstrates why that stereotype exists as we witness a wild team party that involves one guy throwing a television into a swimming pool; a smooth-talking scam artist trying to take advantage of any player that will listen to his pitch; and one teammate that batters his hand bloody in the hopes that it will illicit sympathy from a woman he plans to have sex with. While Seth shows just how well he knows how to play the game by schmoozing with various guests and surrounding himself with beautiful women, Phil wanders around in a state of bemusement. He meets a dark-haired woman named Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon) who definitely looks out of place. She’s not like the kind of bimbos that populate these parties and this intrigues Phil.

Their conversation is cut short when she attempts to leave the party only to be intercepted by Joe Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson), one of the two biggest guys on the team and living proof of Social Darwinism. When he makes his crude intentions towards her body blatantly known, Phil steps in only to anger Joe Bob who proceeds to choke the life out of him. Fortunately, a smooth-talking Seth quickly steps in as the voice of reason. It is a fascinating look at the dynamics of a professional football years before Any Given Sunday (1999) gave it a go (and showed that not much had changed over the years). The party serves as a significant turning point for Phil who has gotten tired of the same old routine and with Charlotte’s influence begins to think about a life after football. He’s tired and his body just can’t take the game-to-game punishment like it used to.


North Dallas Forty is at its best when it shows us the inner workings of pro football with unflinching honesty, like the fascinating scene that shows how various players get ready in the locker room before a big game. Some psych each other up, some pray, some get angry and fired up, some look scared while others joke around like they don’t have a care in the world. It is an interesting look at the mindset of a pro athlete and how they prepare, each in their own way.

Nick Nolte is excellent as one of the few players on the team who is self-aware. He certainly looks and acts the part of a pro football player that is nearing the end of his career. Phil has grown weary of the whole lifestyle and Charlotte may provide a way out. Being an ex-jock himself, Nolte understands this world well and this knowledge informs everything he does in the film. This was the beginning of an illustrious run for the actor playing burnt-out protagonists, from the disheveled cop in 48 HRS. (1982) to the perpetually rumpled educator in Teachers (1984) to playing a dead-end bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Nolte has cornered the market on world-weary wastoids.

Mac Davis more than holds his own with Nolte. He’s very good as Phil’s savvy teammate who is equally self-aware about how pro football really works, but is better at playing by the rules, or more willing to than Phil. Davis has loads of good ol’ boy charm, but also takes us under this façade to show a man who’s never been in love and leads a pretty empty life. Davis has several good scenes with Nolte where they talk honestly about life and football.


The supporting cast features notable character actors like G.D. Spradlin as the coldly analytical Tom Landry-esque head coach, Charles Durning as the perpetually angry assistant coach, Dabney Coleman as a smug, smooth-talking team executive, and a frightening Bo Svenson as a Neanderthal player alongside an actual ballplayer John Matuszak who gets a great moment late in the film where he takes out his frustration on a coach by telling him, “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

Peter Gent played five seasons of professional football as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 to 1968 when the legendary Tom Landry was the head coach and Don Meredith was the quarterback. Gent wrote a fictionalized account of his experiences that was published in 1973. His novel circulated Hollywood for five years before being made. It went through seven or eight different screenplays and, at one point, Robert Altman was interested in directing. Nick Nolte had read the novel and used his newfound clout (from films like The Deep and Who’ll Stop the Rain) to help get it made.

Not surprisingly, the NFL did not cooperate in the making of North Dallas Forty, but 18 active players, including then-Oakland Raider John Matuszak, appeared in the film. In addition, Fred Biletnikoff, who also played for the Raiders (for 14 years), was hired to train Nolte who had played college football. He said that the actor was “pretty much a natural athlete,” and “catches the ball well, runs patterns well, and he has a fine natural run that makes him look like a receiver.” Principal photography began in December 1978 and lasted over ten weeks with scenes often shot after being written the night before. The Dallas Cowboys initially agreed to allow the production to film at their facilities, but then refused once they heard about all the sex in the script. One of the film’s producers Frank Yablans said that the team was “totally uncooperative.” They ended up using the Los Angeles Rams’ facilities for filming instead. To get the best out of the players they hired for the film, the producers paid them a certain amount a day based on how many hits they did. In addition, they were awarded bonuses for the play of the film, the catch of the film and the hit of the film.


Controversy arose when the NFL shunned three players, who had key acting and advisory roles in the film. Running back Tommy Reamon was cut in training camp by the San Francisco 49ers and claimed he was “blackballed” by the league for being in the film. Tom Fears was an All-Pro receiver with the L.A. Rams and after retiring from the game began a scouting service for several teams. He was an advisor on the film and after it came out, three NFL teams that had subscribed to his service, dropped him. Yablans called these incidents, “pretty strange coincidences,” and said, “with a borderline player, well, this movie might be the catalyst for a team to get rid of him.” He went on to say that Dallas Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin was offered a part that Matuszak ultimately played, but backed out. Yablans suspected the team pressured him not to do the film. Naturally, the NFL Commissioner called these suggestions of conspiracy, “absolutely ridiculous … when you talk about blacklisting, you’re talking about a league conspiracy and that’s ludicrous.” On the other hand, Matuszak, a starter for the Raiders, said he didn’t encounter any problems and signed a new three-year contract after making the film.

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The central friendship in the movie, beautifully delineated, is the one between Mr. Nolte and Mac Davis, who expertly plays the team's quarterback, a man whose calculating nature and complacency make him all the more likable, somehow.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “North Dallas Forty retains enough of the original novel's authenticity to deliver strong, if brutish, entertainment.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “The writers – Kotcheff, Gent and producer Frank Yablans – are nonetheless to be congratulated for allowing their story to live through its characters, abjuring Rocky-like fantasy configurations for the harder realities of the game. North-Dallas Forty isn't subtle or finely tuned, but like a crunching downfield tackle, it leaves its mark.”

However, the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen wrote, “North Dallas Forty’s descents into farce and into the lone man versus the corrupt system mentality deprive it of real resonance. It's still not the honest portrait of professional athletics that sport buffs have been waiting for.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “Charlotte, who seemed a creature of rhetorical fancy in the novel, still remains a trifle remote and unassimilated. Dayle Haddon may also be a little too prim and standoffish to achieve a satisfying romantic chemistry with Nolte: Somehow, the temperaments don't mesh.” Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford had problems with the film, but praised Nolte’s performance: “If North Dallas Forty is reasonably accurate, the pro game is a gruesome human abattoir, worse even than previously imagined. Much of the strength of this impression can be attributed to Nick Nolte ... Unfortunately, Nolte's character, Phil Elliott, is often fuzzily drawn, which makes the actor's accomplishment all the more impressive.”


North Dallas Forty shows the corporatization of pro football. Teams are no longer owned by just one man, but by a corporation that views it as just one of many commodities that it owns. Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest), the head of the corporation that owns the Bulls, gives Phil some advice that doubles as a warning: “People who confuse brains and luck can get in a whole lot of trouble. Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game.” Along these lines, head coach B.A. Strother (G.D. Spradlin) consults a computer about whether to play someone or not and gives advice by quoting from The Bible. He reads the data and not the man, comparing the team to that of a machine. For example, during a team meeting, he spells it out for the players: “The key to being a professional is consistency. And the computer measures that quality. No one of you is as good as that computer.” He goes on to chastise Phil and Seth for deviating from the game plan even though it resulted in a touchdown.

North Dallas Forty is a fascinating look at the inner workings of a pro football team and how the game changed from individual ability and skill to facts and statistics. The film drags a bit during the scenes depicting the romantic subplot between Phil and Charlotte. Their purpose is to show what his life could be like without football – using his money to buy a chunk of land out in the country where he plans to build a horse ranch. It’s a goal to strive for, but one wonders how many more seasons he has to play for it to happen. However, these scenes aren’t as interesting as the rest of the film.

If North Dallas Forty doesn’t seem to be a revelation in terms of taking us behind the curtain and showing the inner workings of pro football with scenes depicting players taking B12 shots to numb injury-ridden limbs and popping painkillers like Chiclets to fight through the pain and keep playing, it’s that a lot of the things it reveals are now widely known. At the time, it raised quite a stink because someone finally had the courage to bring to light the brutal realities of the game. It came out at just the right time – during the ‘70s – when sports dramas could dispense with any kind of romantic notions of the game and present a gritty authenticity. North Dallas Forty deserves to be ranked right up there with the very best sports of movies of not just that decade but of all time. It shows how quickly the thrill of victory can change to the agony of defeat. It shows how many athletes give everything they’ve got for the sport and get fame and money in return, but often at a horrible cost when they permanently damage their bodies. Players like Phil are chewed up and spit out by the machinery that is the game – both on and off the field.



SOURCES

Hendrickson, Paul. “The Passion & Pain of North Dallas Forty.” Washington Post. August 14, 1979.

Jares, Joe. “Peering Into the Pro Psyche.” Sports Illustrated. May 7, 1979


Kornheiser, Tony. “NFL Accused of Blacklisting Those Who Aided Film.” Washington Post. September 6, 1979.