This review was updated on March 16, 2005.
Unvarnished verisimilitude, visceral impact and vividly evoked emotional and physical extremes distinguish “Hooligans,” the impressive debut feature by German-born helmer Lexi Alexander. The hype machinery will doubtless be fueled by the novelty of a woman directing an intense, unblinkingly violent drama about rabid soccer fans viciously clashing in the streets of London. (This particular woman is a former World Kickboxing champ, a fact that will likely loom large in the press coverage.) Still, drama will require special handling (and imaginative selling) to click in theatrical and homevid venues with U.S. auds whose interest in the sport is less than rabid.
“Hooligans” won both the grand jury prize and the audience award for feature at SXSW — the first time in fest history that both awards have gone to same pic.
Alexander cleverly makes a running gag of American attitudes about Brit football while using a Yank as p.o.v. protag to guide aud through possibly unfamiliar territory. In the scenario the helmer co-wrote with Dougie Brimson and Josh Shelov, ace journalism student Matt Buckner (Elijah Wood) is kicked out of Harvard weeks before graduation when his roommate, scion of a wealthy political clan, frames him to take the fall for cocaine found in their dorm suite.
Matt flies to London to visit expat sister Shannon (Claire Forlani), who’s married to devoted yet moody Steve Dunham (Marc Warren). But Matt arrives at an inopportune time, so he’s temporarily passed off to Steve’s boisterous brother, Pete (Charlie Hunnam of Douglas McGrath’s “Nicholas Nickleby”), who’s frankly hostile to unwelcome Yank visitors.
Begrudgingly respectful of Matt’s attempt to rebuff his intimidating tactics, however, Pete decides to take the tourist under his wing. He introduces Matt to his friends, fellow members of the GSE — Green Street Elite — the fan-comprised “firm” that loyally supports the West Ham football team. (Under no circumstances, Pete warns Matt, should the Yank ever use the word “soccer.”)
Matt proves to be an unexpectedly tenacious (albeit inexperienced) fighter when the GSE takes on thugs from an opposing firm.That’s more than enough to ingratiate Matt with the GSE members.
However, when the instinctively suspicious Bovver (Leo Gregory) uncovers evidence suggesting Matt may be an undercover journalist, he betrays the Yank and the entire GSE to Tommy Hatcher (Geoff Bell), a rival firm boss with a long-standing beef against Pete’s family.
Evidencing a no-B.S. approach to hand-to-hand (and brick-to-head) mayhem that’s unusual in this era of ever-increasing CGI body counts, Alexander dares to present a type of movie violence that’s all the more unsettling for its blunt-force simplicity. She walks a fine line between honest dramatization and cynical exploitation, all the while acknowledging that, like it or not, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about kicking ass.
“Hooligans” owes a great deal to “The Firm,” the late Alan Clarke’s near-legendary 1988 pic starring Gary Oldman in a career highlight perf as an increasingly violent football fan. But Alexander repays the debt by never shying away from showing how even seemingly civilized men can become animalistic while hunting in packs.
Wood is burdened with some of the pic’s most tin-eared, over-emphatic dialogue — script could have used at least one more rewrite to scrape away the more obvious cliches — and he lays on the moist-eyed innocence a tad too thickly in early scenes. But he’s very adept at rendering Matt’s evolution during his slow, steady immersion into a culture of violence.
Often resembling Brad Pitt’s younger, more pissed-off sibling, Hunnam hits the perfect balance of authority and anarchy, low cunning and instinctive decency. For all his madcap brawling and bad-boy attitude, he has more than sufficient gravitas to banish a traitor from the firm with a succinct command — “Go away!” — and make it sound like the sudden judgment of an angry god.
In key supporting roles, Warren and Bell score with forceful portrayals, and Forlani breathes fresh life into the stock role of a woman who wants her man to stop scuffling with other folks. Gregory memorably limns all aspects of a character who’s equal parts Iago, Judas Iscariot and Jedediah Leland. Lenser Alexander Buono and editor Paul Trejo make violent sequences crackle with a genuinely terrifying anything-can-happen excitement.
Regardless of how “Hooligans” fares, pic amply demonstrates that Alexander — director of “Johnny Flynton,” 2003 Oscar nominee for dramatic short — has the chops to bring a fresh take to onscreen rough stuff. Hollywood will beckon.