DIRECTOR: Lexi Alexander
Elijah Wood, Charlie Hunnam, Claire Forlani, Marc Warren, Leo Gregory, Geoff Bell, Henry Goodman, Terence Jay
"Football Hooliganism" dates back to the late 1800s, with gangs of overzealous football (soccer to us Yanks) club supporters- who came in Britain to be known as firms- intimidating or attacking rival players and clashing with opposing firms. British firms had their heyday in the 1980s, but football hooliganism continues to be a problem in Britain. Following such films as 1988's The Firm and 1995's ID, Green Street Hooligans is another exploration of the violent world of firms and their fiercely committed members. Green Street Hooligans has a couple of unusual things about its origins. In the first place, this British movie centering on all-male British firms was directed by a German woman, Lexi Alexander, who claims to have personal experience with firms from her youth in Germany (Alexander is a German kickboxing champion). In the second place, the main character is American, as is the lead actor, Elijah Wood, who has been making an obvious effort since The Lord of the Rings to separate himself from Frodo Baggins.
This is a British movie about a distinctly British subject, but the central character is Matt Buckner (Elijah Wood), a timid Harvard student who takes the fall for his better-connected roommate's (Terence Jay) drug problem. Expelled from college, and with his journalist father (Henry Goodman) perpetually away on assignment, Matt turns to his sister Shannon (Claire Forlani, ironically an English actress playing an American living in England), who lives in London with her English husband Steve (Marc Warren). Shortly after his arrival, Matt meets Steve's younger brother Pete Dunham (Charlie Hunnam), who is the head of the Green Street Elite, one of the most notorious firms in London. When circumstances inadvertently mix Matt up in his first brawl with a rival firm, the diminutive Yank discovers a taste for the firm lifestyle. It's not long before the G.S.E. has welcomed the Yank into their ranks- although the sour Bovver (Leo Gregory) views him with suspicion- and Shannon and Steve (who has his own reasons for disenchantment with firms) are horrified to discover that mild-mannered little Matt has plunged headfirst into the rough, rowdy, and dangerous world of firms.
Elijah Wood brings his usual earnestness to Matt Buckner, but he's done better work in the past, including in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Like 2001's Ash Wednesday (in which he was hopelessly miscast), this is another venture into an "edgy" role, and he fares somewhat better, but some of the same deficiencies are apparent. Wood is about as good as anyone at playing earnest innocence, but has a little more trouble projecting anger and hostility, and his attempts to do so sometimes come across as forced and overacted. His affable presence (and his Americanness) suits him as our guide into the firm world, but the always low-key Wood takes underplaying to extremes, leaving Matt the blandest character despite being the central figure. Wood's performance is never really more than adequate, with a few effective moments scattered around countered by others where his delivery is blatantly bad. The real "star" of Green Street Hooligans is Charlie Hunnam, who makes Pete a cocky, charismatic, and fearless firm leader, overshadowing Wood and giving Hooligans' most attention-getting performance. Hunnam has screen presence and charisma, and is believable as the kind of guy who could get others to follow him. The supporting cast is solid, with Marc Warren and Leo Gregory being especially of note. Both are credible as conflicted characters. Claire Forlani starts out a little awkward, but she gets better as the movie goes on. Geoff Bell provides an intimidating villain as the ferocious Tommy Hatcher, head of the G.S.E.'s biggest rival. While Pete and the others are depicted with sympathetic qualities, Tommy is the kind of brutal thug who pauses a conversation to slam a man's head against a table for talking too loud. Terence Jay (who also sings "One Blood" over the climactic fight) is the slimy Jeremy Van Holden, and Henry Goodman (along with Forlani, another Brit playing an American in a British movie) has a cameo as Matt's absentee father.
Hooligans is an intriguing effort, but it sometimes comes across like an unpolished one that could have used a little smoothing out around the edges. The characters occasionally do silly things for the purposes of the plot. A betrayal seems insufficiently motivated. A character who has learned a secret of another character comes to see him in a crowded pub and tells him they need to talk outside, but then starts very loudly talking about the very thing he needed to talk to him privately about. Elijah Wood's voiceover narration occasionally gets a little melodramatic and pretentious- "I'd never lived closer to danger...but I'd never felt safer"- and it doesn't help that he's stuck with some awkward dialogue like "He's been fucking stabbed!" and "I don't even know where my home is anymore!". Wood's delivery of them may be overwrought, but so are the lines themselves. The first half or so of Hooligans is better than the second. The movie is most interesting when detailing Matt's initial immersion into the firm lifestyle and his first few brawls, and particularly for American audiences, the subject matter is unfamiliar enough and seldom enough depicted to be of interest. The more conventional overall plotline it eventually gives way to is a bit predictable and cliched, especially leading up to the climactic fight, and one development during said fight is an unforgivably glaring example of a character doing something ridiculously stupid just to create more "tension" (an earlier action by the same character doesn't make a whole lot of sense either). Despite its independent British origins and gritty, bloody fight scenes, much of Hooligans smacks of a Hollywoodized influence, with the firm violence used as a backdrop for what becomes a more familiar storyline of old secrets, betrayal, loyalty, and revenge. Much is made of the firm's distrust of outsiders, especially Americans and journalists, so their almost immediate acceptance of Matt is a little far-fetched. For that matter, so is how quickly Matt turns from a timid, inexperienced fighter into a scrappy butt-kicker. In all fairness, Elijah Wood mostly acquits himself more convincingly in the fight scenes than some might expect, but what should be a substantial transformation from timidity into unlocked aggression isn't given as much of the script's time or attention as it merits.
When it comes to the inevitably frequent fight scenes, Alexander uses quick cuts and shaky cameras to convey the chaos of a brawl, but Hooligans isn't one of those sanitized movies where someone emerges from a fistfight without a mark to show for it. The makeup crew does a pretty convincing job of showing what actually happens when a fist meets a face. Blood flies from people's mouths, and everyone gets bloody more than once. What's more, they seem to revel in it. One of the best things Hooligans does is show why someone might want to be a member of a firm. Matt jumps into his first fight with reckless abandon but little real skill; the first time the inexperienced, physically unimposing Harvard boy manages to knock an opponent down, he looks as surprised as anyone. By the end of the fight, he's bloodied and bruised, but he's grinning away- especially when he finds he's won the firm's respect by standing his ground. It's a rite of passage, and Matt is invigorated. Having been the kind of guy who lets others push him around, he feels for the first time a self-confidence, a sense of strength, and a fiercely loyal camaraderie that he's never had before. "The best part isn't knowing that your friends have your back", he says at one point, "it's knowing that you've got your friends' back." One of the movie's most intriguing scenes is a montage of the various firm members preparing for an upcoming match, when we get glimpses of them in their "respectable" other lives. Pete is a teacher. We see another in an affectionate moment with his girlfriend before heading out the door. One of the men is wearing an RAF uniform. Many firm members aren't just mindless thugs whose entire existence consists of beating each other to a pulp. They're often family men with respectable jobs, not necessarily people you'd automatically expect to have the hobby of going out and getting into street brawls. It's an interesting juxtaposition that could have been explored a little more. The movie is even-handed enough that it doesn't try to deny or disparage the intense loyalty of the members toward each other and their firm, even if the latter at least might be misplaced. Everyone wants to feel like they fit in. Everyone wants to feel like they're part of something. Matt Buckner finds this. The only thing wrong with it is that he finds it in a dubious place. Hooligans doesn't vilify its characters- with the exception of Tommy Hatcher, Pete and the others are basically portrayed as decent guys with a misguided view of what's truly important who are committed enough to it to risk their lives for it. It shows the heady rush of victory and the moments of glory. And in the end it also shows that at the end of the day, it's not worth it.
2 1/2 STARS
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