Wednesday, 2 March 2016

UNDERRATED: The Football Factory (2004)

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The Football Factory (UK, 2004)
Directed by Nick Love
Starring Danny Dyer, Frank Harper, Neil Maskell, Ronald Manookian

On the surface, Take the Lead and The Football Factory may have little in common. One is a film about a teacher trying to reach underachieving pupils through ballroom dancing, and the other is a laddy, meat-headed snapshot of football hooliganism. But they do share one key similarity which hobbles them - namely that they are a perfect storm of two or more sub-genres which are old as dirt.

Where Take the Lead had to contend with being somewhere between Step Up and Blackboard Jungle, The Football Factory is trying at once to be a sports film, a gritty drama and in places a dark comedy. It has one foot in the vile excesses of Green Street while aspiring to be like Shallow Grave or Dead Man's Shoes. But while there is a great deal in this film which will send polite, middle-class film reviewers running for the hills in despair, it is at least more watchable and marginally more ambitious than many of the others in its company.
The central problem with many films about football hooliganism is that they end up glorifying the very thing they are supposed to be attacking. Green Street is by far the worst offender, trying to make out that targeted acts of violence along tribal lines can be noble, and that the mob mentality of hooligans can be justified by calling it an essential feature of masculine friendship. But even films which don't go out of their way to be sympathetic with brain-dead fascist louts can get so deep into the mythology of their subjects that their moral standard disappears (Rise of the Foot Soldier being a good example).
Being a relatively early entry in this unfortunate little canon, The Football Factory isn't guilty of this to the same extent. It's a far more conflcited animal, whose moments of genuine effort are balanced or occasionally outweighed by lowest common denominator rubbish. Director Nick Love devotes so much attention to the central character's clouded state of mind that you want to give him credit for digging beneath the surface. But equally you get the sense - no matter what his protestations to the contrary - that he likes the people he is depicting far more than would be considered healthy.
It's fitting, then, that the very best thing about The Football Factory is something which is given a fair deal of screen time but ultimately overlooked. In amongst all the laddish humour, the violence, the swearing and the self-abuse, we have the rather sad sub-plot about two elderly war veterans dreaming of a better life in Australia. If you gamely wade through the smokescreen of racist chanting and heartless vapidity espoused by the younger men around them, you find two men who are lost in a country and a culture which they fought for but no longer recognise.
There's a comparison to be made here with Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End, based on Ford Madox Ford's seemingly unfilmable tetralogy of novels. The main protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, states at one point that "England was the foundation of order... before money took over, and handed the country to the swindlers and schemers." Tietjens and our elderly duo are separated by class and almost a century of time, but they both reflect the sense of being out of one's own time, watching the world slip away with no means of stopping it. The gradual shift from laughter and hope to sadness and despair is well-handled, with just the right amount of pathos, so that you are left wishing that the whole film had been about them, and feeling perplexed as to why this wasn't the case.
In the absence of this, we are left to contend with our central character, played by Danny Dyer. Dyer may be a laughable figure these days, with his lack of general acting ability and a series of bad decisions on- and off-screen seeming to have caught up with him. But in this early part of his career, in the years surrounding Mean Machine, he was at least innocuously bad. We completely believe him when he's playing it up in the macho, vacuous, hedonistic sequences, but he doesn't have the emotional range to convince us of the character's downward spiral.
In more solid hands, Tommy's epiphany and subsequent struggle could have been better handled. The ingredients that Love puts on screen are all pretty decent on their own, and there are individual scenes or moments when they come together. Spooky children were a staple of horror long before Don't Look Now, but watching Tommy's premonitions of the young child, you get the sense that Love appreciates what Nicolas Roeg was trying to do (or, at the very least, that he watched it). The dream sequences aren't as nighmarish as they could have been, and Tommy's character disintegration is hardly the stuff of Bad Lieutenant, but somewhere in there, there is at least the desire to tell a slightly more complicated story.
The other strength of The Football Factory is that it doesn't pull punches in its more physical scenes. During an interview for his later film The Firm, Love said that he resisted the urge to use slow-motion in the fight scenes because he wanted them to feel as realistic as possible. There's still the question about who, if anyone we should be rooting for in these scenes, and the moral implications that this may have, but purely from a technical standpoint the fight scenes are visceral and engaging. Love captures the nauseating claustrophobia of gangs, the feeling of being unable to escape and testosterone taking over until it blinds people to the consequences of their actions.
These moments or aspects are things to which you can point in defence of The Football Factory. But there are still a great deal of problems with it, either in filmmaking terms or in terms of the culture it represents and the stereotypes which it entrenches. It's no coincidence that both this and Love's subsequent films have been most highly praised by so-called lad mags, a bottomless pit of bad taste, misogyny and small-mindedness whose grasp on quality filmmaking is non-existent. This is a film that appeals to people on a visceral level, rather than a cerebral one, and that's fine. But there's a difference between accepting that thinking isn't the main priority and actively encouraging people not to think, and Love can't really tell the difference.
But what's arguably more offensive than its shallowness, and more problematic, is the reductionist approach it has to working-class British life. The characters are all geezery stereotypes, exaggerated beyond caricature to the point where you begin to wonder whether it's meant to be a wacky comedy. Not only does it demean football fans by depicting this kind of behaviour as normal or natural in men of a certain age, it demeans people from humble backgrounds by arguing that their entire existence can be reduced down to narrow-minded bigotry and casual violence.
The Football Factory is a deeply flawed film which can be recommended purely by virtue of not being as bad as other films in the same vein. There are moments when Love demonstrates his skill as a director, dishing up fight scenes which are visceral and well-shot, and giving us some pathos in the scenes with the older men. But the rest is far too lazy, shoddy, retrograde and stupid to really cut the mustard. It may be Citizen Kane in comparison to Green Street, but that honestly isn't saying very much. 

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NEXT REVIEW: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

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