Re-watching "Any Given Sunday," The Sloppy, Overstated Epic The NFL Deserves
Oliver Stone, our most psychotic auteur, is absolutely the filmmaker the NFL deserves. "Any Given Sunday," his 1999 football opus, is a mess, but an enduring one.
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This Sunday evening, more than a third of the United States population will be watching Super Bowl 50, or at the very least the commercials accompanying it. Cam Newton, who has recently demolished the Arizona Cardinals and the Easily Offended Tennessee Moms with ease, will lead the Carolina Panthers to almost certain victory against noodle-necked game manager Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos. I've been told that if Peyton Manning's head is still completely attached to his body past the third quarter, Papa John will give away a free pizza to everyone in America. In short, you should begin getting ready for some football, if you have not already.
For those who still want to watch an interminable amount of football this Sunday, but want to do so without experiencing the squeamishness of seeing anyone get hurt after the year 2000, there are options, even if you're looking to channel your raging Football Id to a Peyton Manning Type or a Cam Newton Type. Oliver Stone, prescient as ever, put both types in 1999's Any Given Sunday.
In Any Given Sunday, Stone tried to do for professional football what he attempted to do for the Kennedy assassination and to a lesser extent Richard Nixon—create an epic tale surrounding one of the great American myths in the most stylistically overbearing manner possible. The resulting film is a hot mess, frankly, but also one whose concern for the people who make the game remains resonant 16-plus years later. The director's cut version of Any Given Sunday is 156 minutes long, and a great deal of footage—including an entire story arc featuring Jim "Historic Jesus" Caviezel as Al Pacino's estranged son—was left out of both the director's cut and the 162-minute theatrical version.
It is an understatement to call Oliver Stone one of the more interesting filmmakers of the last three decades, if also probably an overstatement to call him much more than that. After creating entertaining and edgy—not in the buzzword sense, but in the tense-and-unstable sense—movies at a breakneck pace in the 1980's, Stone eased into more spaced out and frankly bloated movies in the '90's. It was as if every movie had to be as memorable as Wall Street and Platoon, and the Salvadors and the Talk Radios of his early career gave way to bigger, and occasionally better (and always more grandiose) movies. Any Given Sunday is indeed bloated, but there are moments in it that even in 2016 can still shock and entertain.
Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid and Jamie Foxx are, respectively, Tony D'Amato, Cap Rooney and Willie Beamen, the coach, first-string and third-string quarterbacks of your 2001 Miami Sharks. The Sharks' are deep at QB, in that they have three guys who, if put together, might start a Pro Bowl. Rooney is 37, but thanks to the casting of Dennis Quaid, looks 45; he is reluctant to admit that his body is betraying him, and so there's your Peyton Manning. As for his backup, you can name any African-American quarterback of the last 30 years and find at least one non-racial reason to compare him to Steamin' Willie Beamen. Beamen has the pocket prowess of Warren Moon, the legs of Michael Vick, and the cast-iron stomach of Donovan McNabb, not to mention the bench-riding skills of Robert Griffin III. Beamen isn't much of a dabber, but he does lead Miami to an unprecedented two-game winning streak after a four-game skid. As a result, this Cam Newton-by-way-of-A.J.-Feeley is suddenly the talk of the town, which needless to say costs him his girlfriend (Lela Rochon) and the respect of Coach D'Amato.
Sharks owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) simultaneously wants to honor her late father, the Al Davis to her Mark, while also eyeing a brand new stadium in Los Angeles. She's ruthless in many ways, including her treatment of concussion-laden no-neck Shark Levay (Lawrence Taylor, wearing bedazzled grills on his teeth). Everyone in Any Given Sunday is broken in some way, save probably for defensive coordinator Jim freakin' Brown, and the various ways in which these characters are broken take up a lot of space.
Willie Beamen MetRx N Effects his way into starring in his own rap video, and as in every sports movie ever, gets just a large enough head to piss off everyone around him. During a conversation with Coach Scarface, Beamen makes some sympathetic and understandable points about race in football, but they come at a point where you're supposed to take everything he says as bullshit. Willie's teammates basically throw away home-field advantage (and, um, literally cut his vehicle in half with a chainsaw) to prove a point, and so your Miami Sharks must go down to the Big D and face the Dallas And/Or Texas Knights. It is kind of jarring to realize that all of this drama, all of these emotional arcs, climax during the friggin' divisional round of the playoffs.
The climactic, um, first round playoff game is where half of the film's numerous loose ends are totally forgotten, and the ones that are more meaningful are picked up. D'Amato rallies the troops with a fantastic pre-game speech—one good enough to be repurposed in SUV commercials and which is still used by less-articulate coaches to this day. The inches around them come into play—a run from LL Cool J here, a near-fatal tackle from LT there. Rooney does his best to lead the Sharks, but Willie has to lead them the rest of the way, which he invariably does. The Miami Sharks win at the last second, and everybody is happy except for Dallas coach Johnny Unitas and the Dallas player who loses an eye in the middle of the fucking game. That guy is probably like, 'how could this possibly have been worth it?' Although, to be fair, that guy didn't hear Pacino's speech.
Jamie Foxx does a great job as Beamen in what was probably his breakout role as a top-line star. He's big and overstated where he needs to be, but otherwise balances braggadocio with neediness deftly enough to make us care when he conquers both to lead the Sharks to victory. In 1999, casting a leathery Dennis Quaid as an aging quarterback seemed to be a bit of a stretch, but end-stage Peyton Manning has made me reconsider my originally tepid response to Quaid's role. Al Pacino is excellent as Tony D'Amato, and delivers one of his best Loud Late Al Pacino Performances when it's required of him. While others usually go to Dog Day Afternoon or Scent Of A Woman for their (terrible) Pacino impressions, I use his speech from the closing credits of Any Given Sunday, where he's going to coach the EXPANSION franchise in ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO, and he's taking Willie Beamen with him! This is the second consecutive week in which I've gotten to imiTATE Pacino's diction in PROSE and I'm extremely grateFUL for the OPPORTUNITY.
James Woods and Matthew Modine basically play themselves as if they were doctors, the Hannity And Colmes of the sports medicine field. Aaron Eckhart, as the Sharks' hotshot offensive coordinator who (spoiler alert) replaces D'amato at the end, delivers a performance that brings us as close as we're going to get to seeing a Jon Gruden biopic, at least until my script for I Used To Cook These Wings: The Jon Gruden Story gets in the right hands. Charlton Heston makes one of his final performances as the Commissioner of the "Associated Football Franchises Of America," while supermarket commercial icon James Karen and the ultra-tan Gianni Russo play Cameron Diaz's advisors.
Good old Andrew Bryniarski (Lattimer from The Program!) has a nice scene as Kelly, the ultra-swole lineman who forces out placekicker and one-time Letterman running gag Bjorn Nittmo out of the locker room toilet. Bill Bellamy and LL Cool J also hold their own as the one-two offensive punch as wide receiver Jimmy Sanderson and running back Julian Washington, respectively. Pat O'Hara, on film as in real life, is a non-factor as second-string quarterback Tyler Cherubini. Marty Wright (WWE's "The Boogeyman"!) and Lester Speight (Terry Tate, Office Linebacker!) round out this ragtag bunch of misfits, World League of American Football veterans, and Academy Award winners. I am perhaps showing my bias, here, but I cannot imagine a more satisfying cast, give or take a ghostly Ernest Borgnine or Young Steve Spurrier.
Oliver Stone's propensity towards giving most of his female characters very little to do is so glaring that it's almost refreshing in an age of passive-aggressive defense. Jesse Spano herself, Elizabeth Berkley, continued her post-Showgirls anti-renaissance as Al Pacino's false love interest, while Lauren Holly is red-shaded window dressing as Cap's trophy wife. Cameron Diaz does good work as Pagniacci, and Ann-Margaret is good as Diaz's zonked out mother, although she has a way to go to compete with outsider musician Lucia Pamela for World's Craziest Mother Of An NFL Owner.
For everything that works about Any Given Sunday, from the memorable color around the margins to the Emotive Pacino set pieces, there is a great deal of time spent floating in a sea of unnecessary melodrama. The script for Any Given Sunday is an amalgam of no fewer than three different sources, including former NFL player Pat Toomay's novel On Any Given Sunday and former Raider internist Rob Huizenga's You're Okay, It's Just A Bruise, and that condensation shows. Making a movie about pro football that is almost as long as an actual game is very tricky. Oliver Stone, being Oliver Stone, tries to compress it all into an epic, but the result is episodic and glacially paced and otherwise Frankensteinian. In trying to make you care about the Miami Sharks, Oliver Stone makes you feel the opposite—you care more that the star running back did the football rap from Wildcats than anything he does off the field, up to and including hookers and blow.
It is perhaps best to consider Any Given Sunday as you would a 10-6 NFL football team that squeaks into the playoffs. The ingredients are there, and also the results to a certain extent, but rarely does it rise up to tougher competition. That said, it still provides a uniquely Oliver Stone-y look at football, and a few indelible moments amid all the pomp and flab. You could do worse this weekend than watching Any Given Sunday if it's on TV. But if you're watching just for the commercials and that uncomplicated NFL feeling, then Super Bowl 50 is probably your best bet. That's a compliment.