29. Any Given Sunday

Any Given Sunday attacks, attacks, attacks. The monstrous linebackers who knock out two Miami Sharks quarterbacks feel real. When third-stringer Willie Beamen gets his turn, we line up too. The quaking camera goes tight on threatening details, and the sound won’t settle. It’s like an NFL game filmed from inside the QB’s head. Crowd, coaches, teammates, bloodthirsty opponents vowing pain… The intensity makes Beamen puke.

Director Oliver Stone is not subtle. He cuts to a random lightning storm, or a shot of Earth from deep space, and incorporates into game action the ghosts of 100-year-old players. Stone slows a shot of Al Pacino, as the coach, screaming, and dubs in a lion’s roar. Scenes run in split screen, or are spliced with showy music videos and, during a key confrontation, the Ben-Hur chariot race.

Frenetic styling does not belie a love of football. This flick loooooooves football. Dick Butkus and Johnny Unitas play coaches. Lawrence Taylor plays a sad version of his quarterback-crushing self, and Jim Brown has a drunken bar chat about how the game has slipped since players took second jobs and were grateful just to play. (“The first time they cut away to some fucking commercial, that was the end of it.”)

And years after its 1999 release, AGS remains a stunning simulation of ostentatious NFL games, from the line of scrimmage to the TV announcers’ booth. Sports movies are rarely this big.

The arc is Beamen’s sudden rise from third-stringer to superstar, his hubris-addled fall, and ultimate redemption. This is not, however, a tight story. Perhaps a dozen characters have major roles. They’re walking tropes (Cliches? Except that sounds pejorative) who add vital context. The dirty doctor, meddling owner, showboat running back who won’t block, douchey shock jock. There’s gold-digger wives and a cocky agent and a dramatic speech at the end.

But what a speech. Pacino tells his men “We can climb out of hell one inch at a time.” We buy it because the alternate universe where this team exists feels real. Pro football is egos, violence, and fleeting glory. It’s insane and so entertaining.

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