Tuesday, September 6, 2011

North Dallas Forty

When it comes to sports themed movies, I am as a big baseball guy as I am when talking about sports in general. Nevertheless, north Dallas Forty ranks as one of my favorite sports movies. The following confession may alienate some, but a lot of my fondness for the film comes from a longtime soft spot for the Dallas Cowboys, whose ‘60’s era team the film is loosely based upon. These days, I home home team loyalty for the Carolina Panther, but I still feel compelled to root for the cowboys when I can.

North Dallas Forty features Nick Nolte as aging wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls Phil Elliott. He has been brutally battered over his years of playing. As a result, he is forced to do anything he can to drag himself out on the field, including popping painkillers like candy. All he really wants to do at this point is settle down with his new girlfriend while he is still in one piece. His struggle occurs against the backdrop of hard partying football players who drink, do drugs, and use/abuse women as they see fit. They are rich and they are winning, so they run on a long leash barely held by their legendary coach.

The film is loosely based on the semi-autobiographical novel written by former Cowboy’s wide receiver Peter Gent and his experiences playing with the late ‘60’s era team under legendary coach Tom Landry. Characters in the novel are said to closely resemble real members of the cowboys organization of the time, but having never read the novel, I cannot vouch for that or how well the novel translates to the dying disco era of the late ’70’s.

I do find the combination of drama, comedy, and satire generally satisfying. If there is any major flaw, it is that the satirical elements often go overboard. The question of whether football is a game or a business is pondered to the point of melodrama. Elliott struggles with the corrupt system from every angle, from the barbaric behavior of his teammates to how the owners use up players for their bottom line. Perhaps one with a greater emotional attachment to professional football feels Elliott’s plight is more seriously dramatic than I do, but I feel like I am watching something being given a greater degree of importance than it merits. Money runs professional sports, and rich athletes think they are above the law. Did elliott not know this when he signed on the dotted line/

I do not want to be too harsh, however. The over the top elements regarding drama are a small gripe compared to how well the exaggerated instances of players decadence are done. These guys booze it up when they are not drugging it up and cause general mayhem for innocent bystanders. Their behavior is presented as being gritty rather than glamorized, and when you see the toll playing football takes on them physically, you cannot help but sympathize with their emotional issues. Even if you would not want to be in a room with any of them. Making unsympathetic characters sympathetic is the mark of good storytelling.

As I said above, I am confident football fans will like North Dallas Forty better than those who have no interest in the game. There is a lot of football culture that only a fan could appreciate. But for the average movie viwer, there is still of lot of bawdy humor and heart mixed in. Elliot is falling in love, but he really does not know how. It is tough to care for many of his teammates considering their wild behavior, yet when you see them carried off on a stretcher, you do. The moral crusade bits wherein Elliott jousts against greedy owners and their lawyers gets tiresome because of its over the top emotion, but there are enough good points to make up for it.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

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