Brit character actor Ricky Tomlinson steps up to the starring plate with dandy results as “Mike Bassett: England Manager,” a thoroughly enjoyable, mainstream mockumentary that does for bad soccer what “This Is Spinal Tap” did for bad rock. More gently chucklesome than laugh-out-loud, pic would qualify as an eccentric British comedy if it weren’t so true in its observations of incompetence, amateurishness and self-satisfied Blimpism at the top of English soccer. Knowledge of the game isn’t necessary to appreciate the humor, though recognition of the real-life personalities who dot the movie certainly helps. In Blighty, where pic went on wide release Sept. 28, “Bassett” looks set to net some quick B.O. goals; offshore, it’ll score best where soccer and British loser-humor are both appreciated.
When England’s football manager is felled by a heart attack, the Football Assn. is so desperate to find a speedy replacement that — after most candidates have turned the job down — it chooses Mike Bassett (Tomlinson). A gruff, straight-talking Liverpudlian who’s the hero of the hour for getting an obscure team to win the League Cup, Bassett’s spent his whole life in soccer.
After blithely promising that England will win the World Cup, Bassett hires a bunch of old cronies, including legend-turned-alcoholic Kevin Tonkinson (Dean Lennox Kelly) and violent psycho Gary Wackett (Geoff Bell), as players and car salesman Lonnie Urquart (Philip Jackson) as assistant manager. In the first of three remaining qualifying matches, England gets trounced by Poland and Bassett’s honeymoon with the tabs is quickly over.
Use of split screen and multiscreen during this match is the first signal that the movie is not going to be about the matches themselves, only the results and their impact on the central characters. It’s also the first sign of the film’s very low-key but immensely effective f/x work, which is so convincing — especially when the pic switches to Brazil later on — that you actually believe the movie was shot during a real World Cup tournament.
Bassett’s wheeze of sending his team to a futuristic training institute run by a mad Dane, Dr. Hans Shoegaarten (Ulrich Thomsen), ends up with most of the players injured. Next, his habit of writing team lists on the back of cigarette packs results in two useless players, Benson and Hedges, being called up. (Yes, folks, it’s those kind of jokes.)
After England is trounced by Belgium, it just manages to qualify for the World Cup on a technicality, after drawing 0-0 with Slovenia. The team flies off to the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, where the fun — and humiliation — really starts.
Though the film’s two central jokes — that the England team is useless and its managers even worse — are best appreciated by fans of the sport, the script is never allowed to become a series of soccer-insider gags. Almost all the humor works at a character level first and foremost; the only “insider” aspect is appearance of well-known Brit TV personalities, from standup comic Phill Jupitus playing a needling reporter to sports presenter Gaby Yorath, journalist Martin Bashir and entertainer Keith Allen as themselves.
Pic embraces with glee the whole embarrassment of England’s soccer record, its fan violence, its character assassination by the tabloid press and the general spirit of amateurism in a professional world.
Using his salt-of-the-earth Liverpudlian accent to good effect, Tomlinson carries the pic with an impressive re-creation of the real thing that seems at least partly inspired by a famous TV documentary on former England manager Graham Taylor (clearly one of the models for the Bassett composite), though scripters Rob Sprackling and J.R.N. Smith claim their original idea dates back 17 years.
Utterly humorless, and forever convinced of his mission even when the public is howling for his blood, Bassett remains a sympathetic character in Tomlinson’s terrific perf, quoting Rudyard Kipling at key moments and getting away with verbal gaffes worthy of Dubya: “I wish my dad could see me. He was like a father figure to me.”
In a neat blend of makeup, dress and sincere voice, Amanda Redman nails the role of Bassett’s wife, Karine, while Jackson (best known as Inspector Japp in TV’s “Poirot” series) is smooth as the car salesman-turned-assistant manager. Casting, in fact, is tip-top down the line.
Though actually shot on hi-def video, whole pic looks amazingly like it was made directly on 35mm.