A small village in the Scottish Highlands rediscovers the joys of community in "The Match," an unashamedly old-fashioned, formulaic slice of feel-good whimsy that could have been made in the '50s by Ealing Studios. Packed with familiar British character actors, both young and old, and featuring a token Yank for Stateside appeal, pic is a well-tooled, likable item that would need major money thrown at it to make much B.O. impression but should find a niche audience with positive reviews.

A small village in the Scottish Highlands rediscovers the joys of community in “The Match,” an unashamedly old-fashioned, formulaic slice of feel-good whimsy that could have been made in the ’50s by Ealing Studios. Packed with familiar British character actors, both young and old, and featuring a token Yank for Stateside appeal, pic is a well-tooled, likable item that would need major money thrown at it to make much B.O. impression but should find a niche audience with positive reviews.

Effort is a promising first feature by Glaswegian writer-director Mick Davis, who spent 11 years in L.A. as a fitness trainer and football coach before getting the present script greenlighted in spring 1998. Despite strong similarities to the Brit comedy “Up ‘n’ Under” (1998), in which a bunch of losers were put to the test on a rugby field, “The Match” scores on its own terms via its flavorsome Scottish setting, slicker packaging and more likable characters.

Putative hero is Wullie (Max Beesley), a walking soccer encyclopedia who delivers milk for gruff local dairy farmer Billy Bailey (James Cosmo). His life takes an upturn when Bailey’s daughter, Rosemary (Laura Fraser), returns from university and stays with her mom (Isla Blair), who’s separated from Billy due to his overriding affection for cows. Wullie’s dormant love for Rosemary revives like a prairie fire.

But the rest of the village of Inverdoune has more pressing matters on its mind. The time has come for the 100th annual soccer match between two teams — a group of deadbeats managed by Benny’s Bar owner Big Tam (Ian Holm) and a bunch of arrogant jocks led by Gorgeous Gus (Richard E. Grant), loathsome owner of the fancy L’Bistro. The match has its origins in a bet made by the bars’ original, feuding owners: Whoever loses the 100th game agrees to close down his joint forever. Things don’t look so good for Benny’s Bar, which has so far lost all of the previous 99 matches.

Things look even worse when Big Tam suddenly kicks the bucket after a lifetime devoted to tobacco and single malt, and the team is left leaderless. To add insult to injury, Benny’s regular Mr. Doris (Neil Morrissey), a taciturn former pro soccer player whose only two words of conversation are “piss off,” stoutly refuses to join the team. The slimy Gus is already lining up the champagne when — you guessed it — Wullie is persuaded to overcome a childhood trauma, step up to the plate and manage the Benny’s team.

Given that the outcome could be spotted by a drunken Scot on a foggy night, Davis has wisely chosen to stuff the picture with as many colorful characters as he can invent and keep as many plates spinning as possible to hide the absence of a real plot. As a movie that’s essentially about laid-back, traditional values triumphing over yuppie self-interest, Davis’ gambit works: Though none of his characters is deeper than a puddle, they’re all likable in an eccentric way, and the sense of community is broadly drawn.

Part of the appeal for Brit audiences lies in watching well-known performers having fun (Grant with a broad Scottish accent, Holm in a perpetual alcoholic daze) or newer faces cast against type (Morrissey, the nerd in the sitcom “Men Behaving Badly,” is here as the taciturn hero). For soccer fans, captain of the England team, Alan Shearer pops up in a cameo, and for movie fans, Pierce Brosnan, co-exec producing through his company, Irish Dreamtime, shows up late in the proceedings for a funny one-liner. American actor Tom Sizemore, as a stranded GI, makes the best of a disposable role as love interest to Rosemary’s mom.

Rising TV star Beesley is fine as the put-upon milkman who rises to the challenge, though among the younger thesps it’s Fraser, as his girlfriend, who lights up the screen. Once again, this striking Scottish actress (“Small Faces,” “Cousin Bette,” “Virtual Sexuality”) makes hay from a potentially chaffy role. The large number of supporting roles are all expertly cast.

Largely shot in the village of Straiton, an hour south of Glasgow, pic is technically pro, with discreetly attractive lensing by Witold Stok and major assist from Harry Gregson-Williams’ bouncy score. Movie flounders a little in its mid-section but otherwise is well paced.

The Match

(COMEDY -- BRITISH-U.S.)

Production

A Universal Pictures Intl. release (in U.K.) of a Propaganda Films/Allan Scott Prods. production, in association with Irish Dreamtime. Produced by Allan Scott, Guymon Casady. Executive producers, Steve Golin, Pierce Brosnan, Beau St. Clair, Robert Kosberg. Co-producer, Chris Symes. Directed, written by Mick Davis.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Witold Stok; editor, Kate Williams; music, Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, John Frankish; art director, Lucinda Thomson; costume designer, Pam Downe; sound (Dolby Digital), Colin Nicolson; assistant director, Tommy Gormley; casting, Jeremy Zimmermann. Reviewed at Mr. Young's preview theater, London, Aug. 3, 1999 . Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Wullie Smith ..... Max Beesley Sheila Bailey ..... Isla Blair Billy Bailey ..... James Cosmo Rosemary Bailey ..... Laura Fraser Gorgeous Gus ..... Richard E. Grant Scrapper ..... David Hayman Big Tam ..... Ian Holm Piss Off (Mr. Doris) ..... Neil Morrissey Mechanic ..... David O'Hara Tommy ..... Bill Paterson Danny Van Boy ..... Iain Robertson Buffalo ..... Tom Sizemore
With: Sally Howitt, Samantha Fox, Pierce Brosnan, Alan Shearer.

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