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Nick Nolte in 'North Dallas Forty': best performance by an actor as a football player

Ravens fans who'd like to add a hard-hitting football film to their weekend fare should seek out "North Dallas Forty," mostly because it contains the best performance any actor has ever given as a football player.

Nick Nolte plays a wide receiver (for a fictional Dallas Cowboys-like football team) who's as eloquent in defense of his skills as a virtuoso violinist. "I've got the best hands in the game," he keeps protesting to his coaches, who bench him in favor of a younger man. He loves the game, not the profession, and he's depressed when the coaches' cutthroat tactics and their dubious statistics on his performance -- or the owners' moralistic view of his irreverent personal style --get in the way of his fun.

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Nolte runs with the ball from the very first shot. The moment we see him awaken, nose bloodied and eyes glazed, he seems to remember some old wound -- or past embarrassment on the playing-field -- with each new ray of dawn. We realize that this man knows agony so well, they've developed an intimate, good-humored relationship. He treats his injuries with the bluff stoicism that a duellist would his scars.

Nolte makes his face the stage for a tug-of-war between instinctual reaction and dogged thought. But he also displays gifts of humor and grandstanding flair. When reprimanded in a coaching session, he gets a boyish, hang-dog look -- so boyish it's more like hang-puppy. But when he speaks in his own defense before the team's top brass, he's a real man among corporate mannequins.

The movie as a whole can't compare with its source novel of the same name, by Peter Gent. Nolte, though, is the real deal. The film was released on DVD in 2001, and hasn't been re-released since. But there are plenty of copies around. It's not another rah-rah football film. Thanks to Nolte, it has its own form of true grit.

Photo of Nick Nolte with football from 'Prince of Tides' 

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