Any Given Sunday (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It is well known that superlative film editing can save a mediocre motion picture. Sadly, the opposite can also be true. A case in point is Any Given Sunday, which, despite a potentially engaging story and a number of good performances, is at times unwatchable. The reason is simple: during post-production, director Oliver Stone frequently dipped into his bag of cinematic tricks to pull out quick cuts, slo-mo sequences, fades to black-and-white, and about a dozen other gimmicks. The film is restless to the point of distraction, and the audio is so pumped up that about a third of the dialogue is unintelligible.

Stone is an egomaniac; it's impossible to watch Any Given Sunday and not ponder the director's role in piecing together the film. This is not a good thing, since it inevitably takes the viewer out of the reverie needed to enjoy a film and sets him or her up as an arbiter of Stone's technique. The filmmaker has engaged in this sort of cinematic masturbation before (most notably in Natural Born Killers), but never to this extent. Used sparingly, aspects of this approach can be effective, but Stone gorges himself on bizarre shots and visual weirdness. Complete with a relentless, driving score that is half heavy metal and half hip-hop, the film almost functions as the longest music video ever assembled. It is the embodiment of the MTV style, never dwelling on anything for more than a second or two. It jumps around like a marionette on speed.

During Any Given Sunday's first half, a story struggles to emerge from the assualt on our senses. Thankfully, by the time the movie approaches the two hour mark (it's yet another entry into the Christmas three-hour club - the official running length is 2:45), Stone has lightened up and we are allowed to relax and concentrate on the plot. In fact, despite the cynical, world-weary tone that pervades Any Given Sunday's first two-thirds, the final 60 minutes plays like a fairly traditional football movie. There's a big playoff/payoff game in which characters learn life lessons on the field en route to a rousing finale. There's even an old-fashioned moral: winning may be important, but it's not as important as how you play the game. The only thing missing at the end is a group hug. The anti-Knute Rockne sentiment which pervades much of the film is wiped away by the time the end credits roll.

The story is relatively straightforward, which makes it unfathomable why Stone felt he needed three hours to tell it. (Nearly every long movie released during the final two months of 1999 has suffered from director overindulgence. Hollywood argues that we're getting more for our money, but there are times when less is better.) Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) is the longtime head coach of the Miami Sharks football team. He's a cross between Vince Lobardi, Tom Landry, and General George S. Patton. When his star quarterback, Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid) goes down with a back injury, D'Amato must rely on the skills of an untried rookie, Willie Beaman (Jamie Foxx). After a few spectacular wins, Beamen lets his newfound celebrity status go to his head, angering D'Amato and multi-million dollar running back Julian Washington (LL Cool J). But the team's bitchy owner, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), loves Willie and demands that D'Amato play him, even when Jack returns -- and the Sharks' offensive coordinator, Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart), shares her opinion. Meanwhile, D'Amato suffers an attack of conscience when he learns that the team doctor, Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods), has been clearing injured players for games when they aren't healed. D'Amato replaces Mandrake with the younger and more idealistic Dr. Allie Powers (Matthew Modine), who quickly succumbs to the lures of football: money and women.

Even without considering the film's stylistic elements, Any Given Sunday claims an odd structure. For two hours, Stone appears to be presenting an expose on the ways greed and selfishness have wrecked professional football. We see players who are eager to get on the field because a million dollar bonus is tied to their statistics. There's an owner who will hold a city for ransom to get a better stadium. And there's a young quarterback who changes the plays in the huddle to make himself look better. D'Amato sees all of this and shakes his head, commenting that football was ruined the moment TV got involved and demanding that "this game has got to be about more than winning!" But no one listens to him.

However, during the film's final hour, Stone does an about face and Any Given Sunday turns into any given sports movie, complete with all the rah-rah speeches and the testosterone-and-adrenaline cocktail offered up by a big-play ending. Admittedly, this kind of formula approach to a film about football is more entertaining than the cynical vision adopted by Stone earlier in the proceedings, but it also raises questions about what exactly the director is trying to accomplish. The Jerry Maguire ending is at odds with the Wall Street beginning.

Any Given Sunday is also about the warrior fraternity of football players, and how they cope with the inevitable end of their careers. While the gladiator symbolism is laid on a little too thickly (right down to the inclusion of Ben-Hur's Charlton Heston in a small role), it drives home Stone's point about players and their bloodthirsty fans. The football stadium is the modern Coliseum. Through D'Amato and Rooney, both of whom are nearing the ends of their careers, Stone briefly examines the fear that confronts sports lifers as they face the possibility of existence after the game. This is the same subject that was tackled for baseball by this summer's For Love of the Game.

In the lead, Al Pacino does what Al Pacino does best - he turns up the intensity and commands the camera's attention for every scene. He's not as good as he was in The Insider, but that hardly matters. Stone has surrounded his star with a top-flight supporting cast. Perhaps the real revelation is Cameron Diaz, who goes toe-to-toe with Pacino, matching his every profane utterance with one of her own. Diaz, who often plays soft roles (although there have been exceptions, such as her part in Very Bad Things), gets a chance to really turn nasty. Her confrontations with Pacino are some of the film's highlights. The other scene-stealer is James Woods, who has a terrific one-on-one with Pacino. Unfortunately, Woods is underused. Other than that scene, he is given minimal exposure. Jamie Foxx is effective as the up-and-coming star whose sudden success goes to his head. Dennis Quaid, Everybody's All American, is low key and content to remain in the background. Additional secondary players include John C. McGinley as a confrontational sports writer, Lela Rochon as Beaman's girlfriend (a thankless role), and Lauren Holly as Rooney's high maintenance wife. Football Hall-of-Famers Lawrence Taylor and Johnny Unitis have parts, and (in another nod to his ego) Stone has cast himself as a TV commentator.

I suspect that Any Given Sunday will work better on video than it does in the theaters. In a more intimate medium, Stone's over-the-top style won't drown out everything else, and the storyline will gain the prominence it needs. There is some worthwhile material here, especially for gridiron fans, but there's too much to wade through to get to it. When he reins in his excesses, Stone can be a capable and compelling director. When he's out-of-control however, this kind of chaotic, hyperactive mess is the result. Any Given Sunday should come equipped with a warning label indicating that it's viewer unfriendly.

Any Given Sunday (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:45
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1