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Any Given Sunday

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 31 December 1999

Directed by Oliver Stone

Starring Al Pacino, 
Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, 
James Woods, Jamie Foxx, 
LL Cool J, Matthew Modine, 
Jim Brown, Charlton Heston, 
Ann-Margret, Aaron Eckhart, 
John C. McGinley, Lauren Holly, 
Lela Rochon, Lawrence Taylor, 
and Elizabeth Berkley

Written by John Logan and Oliver Stone

Watching Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday is like examining a patchwork of his previous films sewn onto a rug of green astroturf. The tough, profane, often bickering zoo of coaches, players, teams owners, and journalists that inhabit the film’s world of professional football could almost be Platoon’s group of hardened Vietnam War veterans. The combination of slow motion, flying footballs backed up by slamming rap and heavy metal riffs takes on a hallucinatory quality not far removed from The Doors. Meanwhile, the exhausting, herky-jerky style of deliberately rough-edged camerawork brings to mind Stone’s jailbreak sequence from Natural Born Killers. But this time around, there’s an added ingredient. After two hours of shoving our noses into the most unsavory portrayal of professional sports ever filmed, Stone actually conjures up some faith and optimism. Any Given Sunday might well be the first Oliver Stone film to boast a happy ending.

The film tells a familiar story, but throws in enough chutzpah and twists to give it a flavor apart from similar football-themed films like The Longest Yard, North Dallas Forty, and Semi-Tough. Al Pacino plays Tony D’Amato, an intense coach for the fictional Miami Sharks, a team smarting from several losses during their run for the NFL playoffs. Like Scarface’s Tony Montana shrieking at his underworld adversaries, Pacino’s coach spars with players and team management with his trademark bulging eyes and mad-dog bark. But in the contemporary, dog-eat-dog world of Any Given Sunday, Pacino’s fifties-something coach finds himself at odds with the demanding young team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), and a new school of players more concerned with flashy self-promotion and quick dollars than consistent teamwork. Stone seems to be saying that even “Scarface Al” in full freakout mode is no match for the heartless bastion of yuppiedom at the helm of professional football.

When third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) is unsuspectingly called onto the field to strut his stuff, the newbie proves that he might be an heir to the position’s throne, currently taken up by veteran Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid). Beamen has talent, but D’Amato senses that the green upstart’s poor listening skills and Dennis Rodman-style showmanship are at odds with the long-term rewards of a cohesive team approach. But Beamen wins games, and that’s enough for Pagniacci to pressure the coach to phase Rooney out and let the popular newcomer take over.

Initially, Any Given Sunday bathes in this unholy stew of mostly unsympathetic characters. Beamen revels in his new celebrity status, making a sleazy rap video and dumping his small-town girlfriend for the temptations of the big time. But his arrogance comes with a price: after he’s heard dissing his defense team, the players reward the gesture by sawing his car in half at a raucous party. Long since estranged from his wife and children, Pacino’s lonely coach frequents Miami barstools and the pads of high-priced hookers, frightened at the prospect of growing old and obsolete. John C. McGinley plays a bottom-feeding, Geraldo Rivera-style sportswriter who uses a low-key scuffle with D’Amato to high-profile effect after catching it on-camera. These characters are spliced between plentiful scenes of seedy locker-room antics, as when a hell-raising Sharks player throws an alligator into a player-inhabited shower stall.

Eventually, however, Stone focuses on the more positive dynamics that develop between Pacino and Foxx. The former perceives football, and life, as “games of inches”, to be won over the long haul through perseverance. And by the time the film’s final, crucial game wraps up, it would seems as though the teacher’s advice has worn off on his wisened, pigskin-tossing pupil. Any Given Sunday’s wrap-up isn’t original, but it’s well earned. The film-closing game’s suspense is generated by our clear-eyed perspective on what the outcome means to this well-drawn canvas of characters.

Any Given Sunday’s strength isn’t in its weary story: it’s in the attention that Stone lavishes on the details. There’s one telling scene where players stage a “music war” in the locker room. The black players blast rap, while the white teammates favor metal riffs. When a rap fan challenges the latter group, asking, “Why do you guys play that hard rock crap?” the response sounds authentic. “Metallica rules! Hetfield is God!” These studied rituals and mannerisms make the film interesting to watch.

The acting is also first-rate. While Pacino, Quaid, and Foxx do reliably solid work, Diaz is a wonder to behold. There’s absolutely no sign of There’s Something About Mary sweetness in her convincing portrayal of a cold-blooded heiress. Pagniacci is willing to conspire with the team physician (James Woods in super-slimy mode) to falsify medical information, if that’s what it takes to keep popular players on the field, including ailing linebacker Luther “Shark” Lavay (played by real-life NFL great Lawrence Taylor).

Meanwhile, Stone is equally unsympathetic to the other female characters populating Any Given Sunday. Lauren Holly plays Rooney’s controlling wife as an unsympathetic superbitch who humiliates her insecure husband as he considers retirement. Elizabeth Berkley is a high-priced hooker who seduces Pacino’s lonely coach: her sole purpose in this movie is to flaunt her body and maximize the jiggle factor. Ann-Margret’s underwritten role is that of Pagniacci’s martini guzzling mother.

Drenched in pulsating rock music and laced with the angry, profane words and mood that mark all of Stone’s work, Any Given Sunday nevertheless emerges as a tribute to the wisdom of “old-school” coaches and players. Maybe Stone sees the other side of the coin, now that he’s past middle age and feeling mortality breathing down his back. After the pulverizing roar of Natural Born Killers and U-Turn, Any Given Sunday gives us a kinder, gentler Stone. But count him out for the next Lassie remake.

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