A rambunctious, hyperkinetic, testosterone-and-adrenaline-drenched look at that American obsession known as professional football, “Any Given Sunday” connects for long yardage as smart popular entertainment. Deftly combining brain and brawn in pic’s use of the modern gladiatorial arena as a staging area for various bigger dynamics operating in contempo society and business life, Oliver Stone mixes right-minded takes on innumerable issues with his recently developed helter-skelter style on his way to making his most accessible and purely enjoyable film in years. Long, broad and unruly, Warner Bros. release nonetheless has the razzle-dazzle, star power and pedal-to-the-metal narrative drive to put this one through the uprights commercially in North America, although it’s hard to imagine what auds in football-oblivious countries will make of it.
The first major feature about pro football in a generation, since the comical “Semi-Tough” and the stingingly disenchanted “North Dallas Forty,” “Sunday” is a project that Stone said he conceived as an homage to Robert Aldrich — a sort of combination of “The Dirty Dozen” and the director’s prison football yarn, “The Longest Yard.” In the end, however, Stone, who combined elements from three in-development projects to come up with his shooting script, has ambitiously gone beyond any of these previous pics to evoke the crisis-crammed lives of at least two dozen characters umbilically connected to the game, from owners, coaches and players to wives, sportscasters and doctors.
Stone greatly benefits from the vast canvas this outsize ensemble piece provides, as the variety of characters gives him the opportunity to vent his feelings on a host of matters, big and small. Director was rather narrowly preoccupied with the criminal side of American culture in two of his last three pictures, “Natural Born Killers” and “U-Turn,” and the change of venue has done a world of good in terms of focusing his enormous energies in a more positive direction. Among the central preoccupations here are team ethos vs. selfish individualism, the replacement of team and civic loyalty by commercial interests, the decline in respect for tradition and the knowledge that, no matter how good you are, there is always someone younger right behind you anxious to knock you out of the way.
Nearly an hour of football action frames the story, which begins by plunging the viewer headlong into a bizarre and bitterly fought game in which the Sharks, Miami’s “other” team, is hoping to halt a three-game losing streak and keep its hopes alive for the playoffs with three games to go in the season. Using every technique in the modern playbook — varied film speeds, color and black-and-white, distorted sound, impressionistic visuals, lots of handheld camerawork and quick cutting — “Any Given Sunday” serves instant notice that it intends to put the intensity and brutality of the game in your face at turf level as no film ever has before.
For 23 minutes, the contest plays out in agonizing fashion for the Sharks. First, their aging star quarterback, Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid), goes down from a devastating hit, and the same fate awaits the backup. All that’s left is the third-stringer, the nervous and unprepared Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), who barfs on the field and looks real bad at first. But before the Sharks lose in the final two minutes, Willie shows that he may have what it takes to give the team a shot at the playoffs.
For the remainder of the season, more crises erupt off the field than during games. The Sharks’ savvy veteran coach, Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), who has sacrificed his wife and kids to his job, feels that time is beginning to catch up with him, that he may not have what it takes to connect with the younger players anymore. Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) has inherited the team with her alcoholic mother (Ann-Margret) and has the sort of ruthless bottom-line mentality entirely at odds with the venerable, old school approach of her late father. While Cap struggles to get back in time for the playoffs, hot dog Willie reacts to his sudden fame by splitting from his longtime girlfriend (Lela Rochon), taping a raunchy musicvideo and disrespecting his defensive players, which, in a very amusing party scene, he learns is not a smart thing to do.
Then there’s wide receiver Julian Washington (LL Cool J), a proud veteran with zero tolerance for showoff Willie; Luther “Shark” Lavay (Lawrence Taylor), who’s so banged up that he risks permanent disability or death from one more hit but insists upon finishing the season to earn a big bonus; defensive coordinator Montezuma Monroe (Jim Brown), who loyally rides the waves of good and bad fortune with Tony; team doctors Harvey Mandrake (James Woods) and Ollie Powers (Matthew Modine), who disagree on such matters as tolerating injuries and doping up players; offensive coordinator Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart), who makes no secret of his intention of replacing Tony, the sooner the better, and opinionated sportscaster Jack Rose (John C. McGinley), who has an outsize ego of his own.
With nearly everyone near the boiling point all the time, the collisions between characters are abundant. Tony, who was close to the late owner and won a championship for him, argues incessantly with Christina, who would feel much more comfortable with someone at the helm who was not constantly pointing out what her father would have done. And while pondering his future, Tony must deal with the rivalry between Cap, the great old warrior who’s playing on borrowed time, and Willie, who puts together a winning streak but won’t listen to anyone and infuriates Tony by changing plays at the last second.
Main figures’ private lives are sketched in quick, clear strokes. Workaholic Tony has time only for one roll in the hay with a high-priced hooker (Elizabeth Berkley), while the elegant, imperious Christina has too much to cope with — a self-pitying mother, the thought that her father really wanted a male heir, threats from the league commissioner (Charlton Heston) — to pay heed to the constant array of suitors and aggressive players who would consider her as great a prize as a championship ring. By contrast, the flashy, brazen players can’t possibly handle all the opportunities they get to score off the field.
Through all these characters, Stone and co-writer John Logan are able to make plenty of sharp observations about the generational, racial and attitudinal divides in American life. Just about everyone here is bold, arrogant and strong-headed; there’s no room for pushovers in this tough professional arena. But there are strong differences all the same within this rarefied group. Pic hits the truth when it expresses the older generation’s dismay over the young upstarts’ apparent lack of interest in learning anything from the past, identifying the looking-out-for-No.-1 attitude prevalent today and suggesting what’s lost in the single-minded obsession with return on investment.
Happily, however, all this remains either implicit in the action or expressed as emotions urgently felt by the characters. Almost cartoonlike at times rather than grimly serious in the style of some earlier Stone outings, pic has no time for pontificating as it barrels headlong into the next crisis or the next game, the final one of which is a 30-minute playoff humdinger in Dallas that’s backdropped by loads of off-field drama. Postseason press conference that accompanies end credits provides an amusingly ironic and right-feeling coda.
Working without National Football League sanction and making the teams and league fictional can only have liberated Stone & Co. to be as freewheeling as their spirits and inspiration would allow. Uniforms have a bright, vaguely futuristic look, and a no-holds-barred approach prevails, from the down-and-dirty depiction of the game itself to the raucous, let-it-all-hang-out look at locker room antics.
Although intelligently structured and densely packed with incident and information, pic does have a somewhat mangy, scattershot nature, which is part of its appeal as well as a minor limitation. Using a cinematographer other than Robert Richardson — commercials and musicvid wiz Salvatore Totino in his feature debut — for the first time in eons, Stone continues in the deliberately raw and rough visual vein of “Natural Born Killers” and “U-Turn,” to potent and lively effect. Film contains an extraordinary number of individual shots that are sometimes edited to deliberately disorienting and choppy effect. Music from myriad sources contributes further to the sensory overload.
Performances are almost all shot through with electricity. Pacino, one of whose most famous roles was the Stone-written Scarface, scores strongly as the beleaguered coach, showing clearly that the man’s passion is still there along with the accumulated wisdom of the years. Diaz also impresses in the seemingly unlikely role of the football princess who must daily confront a huge legacy.
In the dozens of other speaking parts, comic actor Foxx is crucially good as the long-frustrated backup who almost spins out of control once he gains the spotlight, and rapper LL Cool J also delivers with force. A pleasant surprise is retired New York Giants great Taylor in his screen debut; Stone has dared to give the non-pro an important dramatic scene in a steam bath, and Taylor puts it across convincingly. In a sideline role as Cap’s wife, Lauren Holly has only one big scene, but it’s by far the best thing she’s done on the bigscreen.
Any number of real-life football figures, including Y.A. Tittle, Dick Butkus, Bob Sinclair, Warren Moon, Johnny Unitas and Barry Switzer, pop up along the way, as does Stone himself as a broadcaster.