47 FILMS: 53. NORTH DALLAS FORTY

In our continuing series of 47 films to see before you are murdered in your dreams, we present the gritty football drama North Dallas Forty.

If you were to look at the poster of North Dallas Forty, you might think it is going to be a boisterous comedy. Raucous laughs, beery fun, locker room jokes. That kind of thing.

But I don’t think there’s a more brutal film about professional sports. Nick Nolte stars as Phil Elliott, a professional footballer whose body is a calamitous mass of bruises and barely healed bones. Seeing him ease into a bath as he sucks down painkillers, booze and pot to numb the results of the previous night’s game is to watch a body literally on its last legs. Directed by Ted Kotchef, the film shows the sport to be a decadent activity stripped of almost all romance in the pursuit of success and money.

The team is held up as the ultimate value. But ultimately there’s no reciprocity. The team doesn’t matter. As Elliott tells his coach: ‘We’re not the team; we’re the equipment.’

Nolte was a footballer for a time and he imbues his role with a world weary knowledge. He’s a self-destructive man who might be saved by simple weariness as much as a late romantic entanglement with Charlotte, a girl he meets at a party. The partying is a microcosm of the world, with a very rapey vibe as well as violence and humiliation lingering under the hedonism. Elliott and his quarterback pal pop pills and drink beers as they prepare for the game, but Elliott has been benched. There might be a possibility of one last chance, but it means getting the doctor to drug him so he doesn’t feel the pain of his destroyed knee.

There have been plenty of disaffected sports films – Slapshot comes to mind and Fat City – but North Dallas Forty hangs in there as one of the most critical of its subject. The only plea for the sport as a sport rather than a business comes from one of the dumbest characters as they other players look on slack-jawed with surprise.

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47 FILMS: 13. FAT CITY

In our continuing series of  ’47 Films to see before you’re murdered in your dreams’, we look at John Huston’s grimly brilliant boxing picture Fat City.

The fact of the matter is there have been more decent Boxing pictures than there have been decent boxing matches and John Huston’s Fat City is one of the best. Stacey Keach is the man who wakes up in his underwear in a flea pit boarding house, his bottle down to the dregs and unable to find a light. As Kris Kristoferson – who was legally required to write a song for every US film from 1971 to 1974 – croons about headaches, Billy Tully (Keach) stumbles out onto the street and heads for the gym where he is hoping to perhaps pick up the pieces. Here he meets young Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the two spar. Tully’s comeback seems already over when he pulls a muscle but on his advice, Ernie goes to the local gym where he is taken on by Tully’s old coach Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto, who played coach in Cheers).

This is no Rocky, or Million Dollar Baby, or Raging Bull, or Southpaw. Those films all follow a similar trajectory, a rise and fall. They all perceive their particular fighter as in some way special – a contender. In Fat City, both Ernie and Tully are nothing special, except for the novelty that they’re white fighting among the black and Mexicans who make up the circuit. Ernie is particularly inept as a boxer and gets himself knocked out in his first bout, his nose broken badly in the next. When he does win a fight by a decision, we don’t even see it. Tully’s belated comeback fight is a brutal affair against another old fighter who is a similarly aging slugger and who pisses blood before the fight.

This is John Steinbeck country, or something Charles Bukowski might have written if he’d stopped for a second writing books about himself. Poor Californians – both Ernie and Tully end up fruit picking at one point – along with the poverty and possible brain damage, Tully has the additional abuse of alcoholism to contend with and a relationship with fellow boozer Oma (a magnificent Susan Tyrell), who for a moment gives him companionship but ultimately torments him. Ernie also has a girl Faye (Candy Clarke) and things seem more hopeful when he gets her pregnant and marries her.

Adapted from his own novel by Leonard Gardner, Fat City is a film that refuses the glamour of the usual boxing pic. There’s no escape from poverty – Cinderella Man – there’s no redemption or defeating of demons, no glory and no glamour. In the end there’s a brutal honesty and a small perfect epic about the losers who never get to Fat City.

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SOUTHPAW – REVIEW

SOUTHPAW – REVIEW: Rocky 5 without the intellectual heft: Donnie Darko punches people, but when his True Detective Season 2 wife is killed Donnie feels like the Prince of Persia and needs the Ghost Dog Butler to help him buck his ideas up.

Boxing movies are weird because essentially boxing is one of those things which is chronically dull and violent, outside of the movie theater. With the one exception that proves the rule – Muhammad Ali – boxers are generally nasty pieces of work without the wit or will to say anything interesting. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy (The Great White) Hope, a light heavy weight fighter who is at the top of his game but with the encouragement of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) has one eye on the door before he gets his ticket to Palookaville. They have a little daughter who is just lovely.

When his wife gets killed in a confusing and weird scene, Billy goes to pieces, loses everything including his mansion and daughter and must start once more from the bottom. He goes to an old gym where he finds old trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) and begins his arduous climb back to the big time.

Gyllenhaal, it has to be said, is excellent, but one wishes that Antoine Fuqua (nominative determinism anyone?) had put as much dedication into the picture as his lead. Fuqua loves his aerial shots of a city at night and he uses them with televisual regularity. The fights are well done but the story is so predictable as to be almost infuriating. The manager played by 50 Cent is so worthless that one of the other characters predicts his worthlessness a good twenty minutes before it proves to be so. The villainous fighter is an actual villain. Even Rocky had the good sense to see that Apollo Creed’s villainy was pantomime and to deconstruct it into a gay love affair by Rocky III. Nope, Billy’s Columbian rival Escobar (Jesus!) is as slimy as his namesake, with a skanky missus (Rita Ora) to boot and everything is strictly by the numbers. We have the training session, the inspired youngster, the trainer’s grumpiness acceding to respect and a seriousness of tone, totally out of keeping with the thin fare on offer.

There are more good boxing movies than there are good boxing matches – check out John Huston’s Fat City – but rather than light heavy weight, Southpaw is more bantam.

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