Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Any Given Sunday (1999)

Any Given Sunday (1999)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: John Logan and Oliver Stone and John Logan.
Starring: Al Pacino (Tony D'Amato), Cameron Diaz (Christina Pagniacci), Dennis Quaid (Jack 'Cap' Rooney), James Woods (Dr. Harvey Mandrake), Jamie Foxx (Willie Beamen), LL Cool J (Julian Washington), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ollie Powers), Jim Brown (Montezuma Monroe), Lawrence Taylor (Luther 'Shark' Lavay), Bill Bellamy (Jimmy Sanderson), Andrew Bryniarski (Patrick 'Madman' Kelly), Lela Rochon (Vanessa Struthers), Lauren Holly (Cindy Rooney), Ann-Margret (Margaret Pagniacci), Aaron Eckhart (Nick Crozier), Elizabeth Berkley (Mandy Murphy), Charlton Heston (AFFA Football Commissioner), John C. McGinley (Jack Rose).

Given everything we now know about the NFL – the epidemic of domestic violence amongst its players, the long term ramifications of concussions that have led to several suicides, the non-stop corporate greed etc. – it’s almost hard to believe now that they league was so upset that Oliver Stone was going to make Any Given Sunday, they refused to grant him permission to use team names, logos or stadiums, and actually threatened to sue him, resulting in a film about a league that isn’t called the NFL, but we all know is the NFL. What Stone intends to do with Any Given Sunday – and mostly succeeds at – is showing us the two sides of professional football – the side that is all about greed, making money any way possible, and if players get hurt permanently, or rules of broken, fuck it, no one cares, as well as the side that shows just how entertaining and great professional football can be – the excitement of the fans, the camaraderie among the teams, etc. If football wasn’t so much damn fun to play and watch, then a league like the NFL wouldn’t exist – people wouldn’t stand for a league that was so callous about its player’s health that rakes in money hand over fist, and then asks for handouts to build new stadiums, that benefit no one except for the teams. But everyone loves football.

Stone crams a lot in Any Given Sunday’s two hour and forty minute runtime – too much in fact (I wish he had taken the project to somewhere like HBO and made a 6 or 8 hour miniseries out of it). He’s got subplots about the daughter of the late owner of the Miami Sharks, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) and her greed – as she has slashed the team’s payroll budget, and still expects winning results, pushing the team’s medical staff to keep unhealthy players on the field, trying to get money out of the Mayor’s office for a new stadium, and conducting covert negotiations with the city of L.A. about relocation. There’s the team doctor, Harvey Mandrake (James Woods) who idea of treatment is to pump everyone full of drugs so they just keep playing. There’s the legendary, aging quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) who has suffered another injury – this one that could end his career. There’s the third string quarterback, Willie Beaman (Jamie Foxx), who becomes an unexpected star, by ignoring everyone else and just doing what he feels like out there. There’s another aging player, Shark Lavay (Lawrence Taylor) willingly sacrificing his health to try and get a bonus. There’s a young coach (Aaron Eckhart) who feels ignored. There’s a selfish player (LL Cool J) who doesn’t care if the team wins or loses as long as he gets his carries. Trying to balance all of these people is Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), the coach whose own life may be in shambles, but he knows football, but wants to do things the “old school” way – in a league that is constantly changing. That’s a lot of subplots for any movie – especially one that for half its running time is just bone crunching football sequences – scenes where all the strategy that is talked about is seemingly thrown out the window, because Stone is more interested in the visceral impact of football than all the strategy that goes into the game.

To give Stone credit, Any Given Sunday is never less than entertaining. The film moves at a break neck pace, both on and off the field. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Pacino’s coach and Foxx’s brash, young quarterback. Foxx plays Beaman with excessive confidence – the world may be shocked that he has become a superstar, but he certainly isn’t – he always knew he was great, he just needed the world to catch up to him. Beaman embraces all the trappings of stardom – he drops his longtime girlfriend when he becomes a star, does a ton of ads, and even releases a rap video (which is surprisingly catchy – hell, the damn song is still in my head days later). He doesn’t much care if Tony doesn’t like him changing his plays – he knows he has no one else to replace him, so he’ll do what he wants. And if he rubs his teammates the wrong way, who cares? This is the Willie Beaman show now. Foxx – for whom this was his first real dramatic role – handles this brashness easily, but he also succeeds at conveying the insecurity he feels behind that bravado. Foxx was a comedic star when he made this film – but this was the film that compelled to bigger, better things – including an Oscar a few years later for Ray (2004).

For Pacino’s part, he is for most of the running time at full bore, over the top, crazy Pacino mode – but the good kind of crazy, over the top Pacino, not the one that can grow tired really fast. The film was released the same year as Michael Mann’s The Insider – which showed that Pacino could still do understated and subtle, and is admittedly a better performance in a far superior movie. But Pacino was undoubtedly the right performance to play this role – better than others under consideration (Clint Eastwood and Robert DeNiro among them) – because Pacino has the crazy energy to keep this movie going. His huge, inspirational speech is one of the best of its kind, and Pacino relishes every moment.

To a certain extent, Any Given Sunday is too much fun for its own good. The film reminds me of Stone’s Wall Street – which he meant to be an indictment of corporate greed on Wall Street, and ended up inspiring a whole new generation of Gordon Gekko’s. Stone is trying to say a lot of thing about greed and corruption in professional sports in Any Given Sunday – but to a certain extent it is lost underneath all that bone crunching football action, and a third act that tries to put a happy spin on everything, even when it has some of the movie’s most pointed critiques – which are mainly brushed aside quickly to get back to the football.

As a result, I don’t think Any Given Sunday is quite the film Stone wants it to be. But what it is, is terrifically entertaining, well-acted and well directed. Stone bites off more than he can realistically chew here – but it’s an awful lot of fun watching him try.

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