Green Street Hooligans

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 03/20/05 09:51:48

"Remind me NEVER to visit a football match in the UK!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

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.

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