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GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS/HOOLIGANS (2005)
It’s no mystery why the critically acclaimed UK flick Hooligans refuses to catch a break with the big Hollywood powerhouses. Snagging multiple awards at US film festivals (Malibu and South by Southwest included) and showing a solid audience at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Hooligans, with it’s incredibly engaging, unique and violent subject matter, is a surefire crowd-pleaser. However, no true American would enjoy watching British lads pick beat up a Harvard yank after a match of what us Westerners call “soccer”, now would they? Hooligans, directed by Lexi Alexander, not only brings audiences into the world of competitive UK football, but also poses important arguments over the value of brotherhood and the lengths at which one would go to remain a part of it.
Hooligans begins where Matt Buckner’s college career ends. Buckner (Elijah Wood), editor of the Harvard newspaper and typical New England overachiever, is caught in a fictitious drug scandal staged in order to keep rich and snobby roommate Jeremy Van Holden, (Terence Jay) out of trouble. Just shy of getting his degree and without a place to truly call home, Buckner flies oversees to join his sister Shannon (Claire Forlani) and her family. Shannon’s husband Steve has important plans for the evening and, although hesitant, leaves little Matt in the hands of brother Pete Dunham (Charlie Hunnam). As the full-time leader of team United’s Green Street Elite, a gang that UK “football” teams call “firms”, Pete wants nothing to do with the yank but following his brother’s orders and takes Matt out to his first football match. A bunch of broken bottles and bloody lips later, Buckner is hooked and wants in. The only problem? His hobby as a journalist and his American skin-- both of which could potentially bring the GSE out from the shadows and cause tremendous turmoil.
Hooligans is not only Matt Buckner’s story, but the story of female director Alexander. It’s almost ironic that the gruesome and barbaric subworld that is the backdrop to this film is so well documented by a woman. Alexander grew up in Germany with a brother who was an active member of a firm. The stories she lived and the tales he told make for the inspiration in this film.
Knowing that Hooligans is crafted from autobiographic material makes the characters’ relationships in the film even more real and touching. There is a working balance between the graphic frame-by-frame fight scenes and the dialogue development between the actors onscreen. Dunham and Buckner are related through blood, but also through the GSE. Their bond is tangible; and as Dunham invites Buckner into the firm, problems develop between the group. Shannon and Steve’s love is tested when his involvement in the GSE comes full circle- haunting the fate of his new family.
Although Hooligans is a film about football fanatics that go over the edge, Alexander creates characters that are much more three-dimensional than your classic villain. In doing so, the message she strives to tell is unclear: is Hooligans a cautionary story or does Alexander’s personal history lend for an understanding and acceptance of the firm subculture?
As long as Hooligans continues its circulation across the globe (release dates are set for fall of 2005 in parts of Europe), more and more Americans will latch on to its infectious spirit and even more movie producers will want to steer clear of the film and its anti-American sentiment. In turn, more superhero comic-book action sequels will flood theaters while Alexander waits, yet again, for her turn.
Although West Ham United's football is mediocre, says Pete, their 'firm', the Green Street Elite, is far from it. The famous GSE is led by Pete (Charlie Hunnam), a thug with a sense of morality, whose hobby is to beat sense into the more vehement supporters of opposing teams. Matt Buckner (Elijah Wood) is an exceptional journalism student kicked out of Harvard University having been set up for drug possession. Disoriented after his expulsion, Matt is unsure where his life is going, and decides to stay in London with his estranged sister (Claire Forlani), whose husband Steve (Marc Warren) is Pete's brother. When Pete takes Matt under his wing, he gets embroiled in a shady life of football hooliganism. However, since his new gang don't take kindly to Americans, journalists or outsiders, relations aren't likely to run smoothly, especially with Pete's right-hand man, Bovver (Leo Gregory).
On the surface Green Street is 'about' football hooliganism, although it is far more compelling than the premise suggests. Despite claims that the film is actually glamourising violence, it examines the disturbing phenomenon and the effect of it on its participants and their families, ultimately delivering its message that it is generally a bad thing. This moral is portrayed through a truly enjoyable storyline with a number of subplots and well-conceived characters and interelationships. The film is much more of a study of relationships, divided loyalties, friendships and revenge than it is aimed at tackling football hooliganism, even though it appears in this context.
The cast are all very good in their parts. Elijah Wood is well cast as the fish out of water Matt, sporting a wide-eyed bemused face at the beginning, descending into an unexpected air of menace. Meanwhile, Charlie Hunnam plays the swaggering gang-leader admirably, thankfully a far cry from his Nicholas Nickleby days. Geoff Bell, also playing a similarly volatile role in Nick Love's The Business, is a highlight, making a pivotal appearance as the head of a rival firm.
The film also looks great, with filming from real stadiums and footage of players and cheering crowds and tube stations punctuated with deserted claustrophobic alleyways and dingy pubs, providing an authentic atmosphere. The violent parts, of which there are a fair few, are made more interesting by a variety of slow-motion, fast-forward and distortive effects.
For the most part, the cast and script make the story believable even though the relationship between Matt and Pete is sped along a little artificially by the American moving into Pete's place rather than his sister's, despite only just meeting him.
Green Street far exceeded my expectations with a great storyline, tension and good performances delivered with humour. Overall, those who see this as glamourising violence are completely missing the point of the film.
SCREENED AT THE 2005 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: Not long ago I saw a pretty solid Brit flick entitled "The Football Factory." It's a look into the world of UK football hooliganism, and while I found the subject matter pretty damn fascinating, I felt the movie lacked that personal edge that separates great films from the pretty good ones. Fortunately there's another new film that broaches the same subject - one that brings some real humanity to such anarchic subject material. "Hooligans" recently won several awards at the 2005 SXSW Film Festival, and I've no trouble understanding why.
Raised in the lovely American town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I was taught that OUR sports fans were among the most vocal, the most passionate, and (occasionally) the most ornery sports fans in the country. Well, that may be true, but after seeing what goes on in Lexi Alexander's smoothly entertaining Hooligans - I'm beginning to think that even the most hardcore American sports fans have nothing on our friends across the pond. The UK football fans can reach levels of physical insanity generally unseen outside of riots, fires or earthquakes.
I suppose it's the inherent passion for the local team, combined with each small town's close proximity to one another, that allows UK football hooliganism to thrive. But thrive it does, and woe is the non-brawler who happens to show up at the wrong football match on the wrong afternoon. Stripped down to its barest essence, 'hooliganism' is what happens when fans of Team A meet up with fans of Team B...and then beat the absolute crap out of each other in the streets. Clearly this is an activity for the angry young men, but it tends to plaster a few black eyes onto entire communities every weekend.
Devotion and passion for one's hometown team is, indeed, an entertaining and admirable thing to see, but these young football fans take it to a degree that's just horrifying.
Young Matt Buckner is about to graduate from Harvard when he chooses to take a fall for his roommate. Summarily expelled for a nasty drug habit that's not even his, Matt hightails it over to England, where he hopes to spend some quiet decompression time with his big sister. It only takes about 45 seconds before Matt is knee-deep in the "hooligan culture," as he strikes up a quick friendship with a charming ruffian called Pete.
Pete's mates don't take to the Yank right away, but Matt proves his mettle during an alleyway brawl, and boom - he's one of the gang. Matt is so quietly thrilled with his loyal new pals that he ignores the basic common sense that says "Hey, bare-knuckled alleyway brawls are not exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle." But the comradeship and constant adrenalin rush work as their own narcotic, and Matt's more than happy to join in the fray.
And then things turn really ugly...
So while I was enjoying the heck out of Hooligans, I found myself wondering what made this flick a marked improvement over The Football Factory. And one of the answers I came up with was: Elijah Wood and Charlie Hunnam.
If you're looking for an actor to capture youthful idealism mixed with tentative insecurity, then Elijah Wood should be atop your list. Sure, it might take a few minutes before you can stop seeing Mr. Wood as "good ol' Frodo," but this actor's got real chops, and he absolutely deserves to be seen as more than just Hobbit-like. He's the heart, the soul, and the anchor of Hooligans and Wood just nails his role in scene after scene.
And even better than Wood's performance is that of Charlie Hunnam as Pete; at first glance his character seems like little more than an irredeemable thug, a posturing tough guy who lives to humiliate and belittle. But as Hooligans goes on, you'll find yourself absolutely hypnotized by Hunnam's performance. He's equal parts ignorant, loyal, scary, charming, confused and fragile. Perhaps best known from his excellent work in the criminally underrated Nicholas Nickleby adaptation from a few years back, this Charlie Hunnam kid is absolutely poised to become a huge star. And soon.
There's great support work all around; Claire Forlani (a British actress playing an American living in Great Britain) delivers some of her best work in years; her husband is played by Marc Warren, and this is another new face who absolutely owns the screen. In only a few scenes Warren is able to make you care deeply for his (admittedly flawed) character, and this helps to make the peripheral subplots just as compelling as are the non-stop fisticuffs.
One of Hooligans best perspectives comes in relation to the numerous fight scenes. First-time director Lexi Alexander takes great pains to make sure that the brawls are cinematically exciting - while never allowing the mayhem to seem too flashy or appealing. That's a really tough balance to strike, and to the director's credit, you certainly won't walk out of Hooligans trolling the alleys, itchin' for a fight.
I'm not exactly sure how well "Hooligans" will succeed here in the States, as we're generally not all that interested in sports stories that aren't A) our own, or B) littered with ponderous cliché. But the movie works resoundingly well as a spotlight onto another country's sports-obsessed culture, plus it's just a damn well-made piece of storytelling, period.