North Dallas Forty
"I can take the crap. I can take the manipulation. I can take the pain. As long as I get that chance every Sunday," says Phillip Elliott (Nick Nolte) in this film adaptation of the novel by former Dallas Cowboy football player Peter Gent. One of the very best gridiron movies ever made, North Dallas Forty is an unblinking, unsentimental look at the brutish world of professional football. Nolte and Mac Davis head the fictional North Dallas football team an enterprise hobby owned by corporate CEO Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest) that's on the verge of going to the playoffs. The movie avoids the "pull-for-the-underdog" cliché that has become popular with films like the recent The Replacements, choosing instead to honestly depict the sheer physical pain, pressure, and win-at-all-costs attitude that keeps players in a state of fear and frenzy. Most of the action is seen through the eyes of the aging Nolte, who once loved the pure thrill of the game but can no longer ignore the blatant use of the players as puppets. The player/coach relationship here is one of adolescent/parent, with the players treated like irrepressible children and kept in a constant state apprehension. These grown men live perpetually on the edge of violence, where they are coddled and bullied, living life in a blur of pain, pills, booze, money, and groupies. Through tortuous stretches of idle down-time waiting for the glory that comes on the field, their vices are indulged, and their off-the-field transgressions are covered up. Encouraged to play no matter what, even to the point of permanently damaging their bodies with drugs, these athletes are aware that their celebrity will be short-lived that when their bodies can't take the brutal punishment anymore, younger better players are waiting in the wings to take their place. Authentic in its portrayal of football as a bloodthirsty business, North Dallas Forty manages to generate sympathy for its band of over-stimulated thugs who are constantly terrorized by demanding and manipulative team-owners. Director Ted Kotcheff (who hasn't directed anything this good since) keeps the action tight while reducing screen time that deals with extraneous issues (like extracurricular relationships) to a minimum. The film does a superb job of showing pro football as a business; here it resembles nothing like a game or sport. Particularly good is one locker room scene before the critical game where the pressure becomes almost unbearable as the players work themselves into a state of agitated rage before bursting onto the field. Nolte does some of his finest work here, and all of the cast members are terrific, including Forrest, Charles Durning, Dayle Haddon, and Bo Svenson. The convincing dialogue from the screenplay by Kotcheff and producer Frank Yablans lets the characters impart aphorisms in language that feels real. Don't let the "silly football comedy" cover-art fool you, North Dallas Forty is a serious, well-constructed film. Paramount's DVD release features an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1, but regrettably no supplemental material has been included. Keep-case.