Wednesday December 22, 1999

     Think of the Oliver Stone-directed "Any Given Sunday" as a fan's notes. This energetic and diverting sports soap opera throws a few head fakes in the direction of an iconoclastic examination of the dark side of professional football, but at the end of the day it comes out squarely for, hold onto your hats, the rewards of teamwork and unselfish behavior.
     Put this one on the shelf next to "Knute Rockne, All American." Flash, dazzle and full-frontal male nudity notwithstanding, it belongs there.
     Who better than Stone, after all, to deal with the orgiastic frenzy of violence, hysteria and macho posturing that has given America's undying passion for professional football the feel of the last days of the Roman Empire? Big salaries, big egos, big pressure games, it's all ripe for the outlandish nothing-succeeds-like-excess treatment it gets here.
     Who but Stone, for that matter, would think of intercutting clips from the chariot race in "Ben-Hur" with the on-field action, or using Native American burial chants on the soundtrack? Also for ears only are waves of amplified grunts and the thuds of bodies crunching against bodies that make the Sunday contests sound more bone-jarring than combat in Vietnam. If you can't be over the top, "Any Given Sunday" says, what's the point of playing?
     When it comes to actually re-creating games, Stone pours on the razzle-dazzle, even putting cameras on players' helmets to get unusual angles. Working with cinematographer Salvatore Totino, whose career has been all in commercials and music videos, as well as a team of editors with extensive experience in those areas, Stone favors a nervous, jittery camera style that slices and dices the action footage in a way that will make even fans of ESPN's "Sports Center" dizzy. The downside of all this technique is that if you're not a football fan it's likely you'll be baffled by the on-field proceedings.
     When it's not occupied by all these pyrotechnics, "Any Given Sunday" (written by John Logan and Stone from a screen story by Daniel Pyne and Logan) does nod in the direction of some of the game's problems familiar to readers of daily sports pages. Lightly touched on are the abuse of painkillers, the winking at serious medical conditions, the apparent omnipresence of willing women and wild parties, the pernicious influence of big TV playoff money on the nature of the game as well as the wheeling and dealing that go on when teams pit cities against cities in attempts to get newer, more profitable stadiums built.
     Although in "JFK" Stone was willing to posit that the entire U.S. government was corrupt to the core, he apparently has more respect for the game of football. There's more mythologizing than idol-breaking going on in "Any Given Sunday"--it opens with a quote from legendary coach Vince Lombardi--a film driven by the belief that if everyone concentrated on winning and losing like men, problems would disappear. No one quite says, "There's no 'I' in 'team,' " but it's even money that the line was in an earlier draft.
     The NFL, scared of its own shadow when it comes to the possibility of less than worshipful treatment, did not cooperate with "Any Given Sunday," so the film had to come up with its own league (Associated Football Franchises of America), its own Super Bowl (the Pantheon Cup), even its own teams, complete with wacky uniforms and names like the Rhinos, the Crusaders and the Sharks.
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     Those gritty Miami Sharks, whose black uniforms and "Whatever It Takes" motto bring the Oakland Raiders to mind, are the film's focus. The eye of the hurricane is Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino), the Sharks' veteran coach who is under pressure on and off the field.
     Never mind that the coach has sacrificed family and friends to football, never mind that he truly believes "this game has got to be about more than winning." Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who owns the team along with her alcoholic mother, Margaret (Ann-Margret), thinks he's lost a step. And his veteran quarterback, Jack "Cap" Rooney (Dennis Quaid), is out of action with a serious injury.
     The only replacement he has is an untried kid named Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), who turns out to have a gift for the game but also a selfish arrogance and a weakness for the blandishments of fame. Can a coach from a different generation teach a youngster who "doesn't give a gee-whiz about anybody" what football is all about in time for the make-or-break big game? Yes, it's that kind of a movie, and if you know what you're getting into, it's unlikely you'll be bored.
     Fleshing out the picture are lots of awfully familiar roles, like the craven sportswriter (John C. McGinley), the long-suffering girlfriend (Lela Rochon), the scheming wife (Lauren Holly), the running back in love with his own statistics (LL Cool J), the ruthless team orthopedist (James Woods) and the more idealistic internist (Matthew Modine). NFL veterans like Jim Brown playing defensive coordinator Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence Taylor as defensive captain Luther "Shark" Lavay also get in the act, and Stone has even given himself a cameo as a TV color commentator.
     All acquit themselves well enough, and in any case memorable acting is not what this picture is all about. Still, "Any Given Sunday" does err in casting Pacino as the old school coach. Yes, he can yell when he has to, which is often. But Pacino is so self-centered an actor he has difficulty conveying a believable interest in other people, specifically the players, that great coaches, no matter how egomaniacal, must have. Stone and company are right, it is a jungle out there, and even warriors need someone who cares on their side.


Any Given Sunday, 1999. R for strong language and some nudity/sexuality. An Ixtlan/the Donners' Co. Production, distributed by Warner Bros. Director Oliver Stone. Producers Lauren Shuler Donner, Dan Halsted, Clayton Townsend. Executive producers Richard Donner, Oliver Stone. Screenplay John Logan and Oliver Stone. Screen story Daniel Pyne and John Logan. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Editors Tom Nordberg, Keith Salmon, Stuart Waks, Stuart Levi. Costumes Mary Zophres. Music Robbie Robertson, Paul Kelly, Richard Horowitz. Production designer Victor Kempster. Art director Derek Hill. Set decorators Ron Weiss, Ford Wheeler. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Al Pacino as Coach Tony D'Amato. Cameron Diaz as Christina Pagniacci. Dennis Quaid as Jack "Cap" Rooney. James Woods as Dr. Harvey Mandrake. Jamie Foxx as Willie Beamen. LL Cool J as Julian Washington. Jim Brown as Montezuma Monroe. Lawrence Taylor as Luther "Shark" Lavay. Matthew Modine as Dr. Ollie Powers.