With "Any Given Sunday", director Oliver Stone ("U-Turn") dissects the glory and decadence of football, as seen through the stunning victories and stinging defeats of the fictitious Miami Sharks. Stone presents the players of the NFL as modern-day gladiators who do battle before bloodthirsty crowds in multi-million dollar coliseums, where on any given Sunday, you either win or lose. And while the veteran director has assembled some top-notch talent for this ode to the American past time, the film's potential for being one of the great films of 1999 ends up being sabotaged by Stone's own directorial indulgences, which almost make it unwatchable.
Al Pacino ("The Devil's Advocate") is Tony D'Amato, the tireless and intense coach of the Miami Sharks, a man who has spent much of his life on the field, acting as a surrogate father to the men of the team. D'Amato is a man who lives for the game, and has paid for the team's past victories with his own blood, losing his wife and daughters in the process. At the film's opening, it is in the middle of a bad season for the Sharks, a situation which is quickly compounded by the loss of the team's star quarterback, Jack Rooney (Dennis Quaid of "Savior"), on account of a serious back injury that may completely scuttle his long and distinguished career.
With the faint hope of salvaging a bad season, D'Amato sends out third-string quarterback Willie Beamin ("In Living Color" alumnus Jamie Foxx), an untried rookie with a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder. Fortunately, Beamin delivers a few spectacular plays and wins, which ends up putting the team back on track for the play-offs. However, the victories do not come cheap-- Beamin repeatedly ignores D'Amato's plays, and the newfound fame quickly goes to his head, angering both his team-mates and D'Amato. The divisions on the field are further exacerbated when the team's MBA-brandishing owner, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz of "Being John Malkovich"), perched atop her ivory tower, pushes to put Rooney out to pasture, replacing him with flavor-of-the-month Beamin. Meanwhile, another conflict is brewing on the team's medical staff, as the older Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods of "The General's Daughter") and the green Dr. Al Powers (Matthew Modine of "Notting Hill") come to blows over whether to allow injured players to go back onto the field before they have fully recovered.
And so like any good epic, the battle lines are drawn in large bold strokes: duty versus conscience, loyalty versus money, experience versus ambition, old school versus new school, and individual glory versus being a team player. As the all-important playoffs loom closer in the horizon, D'Amato finds himself the only one capable of bringing the team together for one last shot at bringing back the glory days of the Miami Sharks.
"Any Given Sunday" starts off promisingly enough as an insightful commentary on the state of the sport, as Stone takes us through the ins-and-outs of professional football, from the snap decisions made on the field to the executive decisions made in the owner's office. As with any of Stone's films, events are portrayed from a decidedly left-wing perspective. In this case, Stone illustrates how professional football has succumbed to the decadent indulgences of money, sex, and power, with bad decisions being made for the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, about halfway through, it seems as though Stone changes his mind on what he set out to accomplish. Instead of reviling what football has become in an age of multi-million dollar deals and endorsements, the story starts to embrace, almost celebrate, 'the way things are done'. For example, decisions motivated by greed in the first half end up becoming acceptable in the second half. It is at this point, sadly, where the film turns into your archetypal sports film that celebrates unabashed male bravado, where winning is everything, regardless of the cost, irrevocably losing all the goodwill developed in the first half.
However, the most troubling aspect of the film comes from Stone's directorial indulgences. Admittedly, I have been a long-time fan of Stone's 'multimedia MTV-school-of-filmmaking' style, in which he jumps between different types of film stock and inter-cuts footage to bring new levels of interpretation to a scene. Stone first dabbled in this style in "JFK", and "Natural Born Killers" is probably the best showcase of what can be done with some judicious editing. However, what is important in 'the Oliver Stone method' is content-- there has to be a reason behind barraging the viewer with images, whether it be providing an alternative perspective to a situation, or to reveal layers of subtext. In "Natural Born Killers", Stone used it to satirize the absurdity of pop-culture sensationalism in modern-day media, as well for visually conveying the motivations and perceptions of its characters.
Now contrast this with what Stone does in "Any Given Sunday"-- repetitive scenes of football players yelling, running, and smashing into each other in all its bone crunching glory, interspersed with the occasional ogle shot of the cheerleaders. For the first fifteen minutes, the frantic energy and mayhem on the field presented in this manner is interesting, but it quickly gets old and gimmicky. Sitting through the 2 hours and 45 minutes of this film is a brutal assault, as Stone pummels your senses with flashing images and deafening noises without any justifiable reason to do so. If "Any Given Sunday" were a web site, it would be loaded with bells and whistles, but saddled with the same content on every single page.
Unfortunately, the multimedia barrage is enough to turn off anybody, which is a shame, since there are a number of decent performances found within the film. Pacino, legendary for his intensity and bravado, is appropriately cast as the passionate yet troubled coach, and his scenes are probably the only reason why I was able to maintain interest. Diaz, cast against type, is deliciously malicious as the team's owner, though she is saddled with an underwritten character that undergoes a muddled change of heart in the film's finale. Foxx shines as the green rookie whose sudden stardom quickly turns to arrogance, while LL Cool J ("Deep Blue Sea") does an effective turn as a star running back who still has a sense of right-and-wrong. Woods is criminally underused in this film, as he is only given one really good scene before dropping out of the picture altogether. Finally, Quaid quietly conveys the inner turmoil that his character faces, who sees the writing on the wall with respect to his fading career, yet wishes to hang on to his glory days just a little bit longer.
If you are a big fan of football, a big fan of Pacino, or at least the Oliver Stone style, then "Any Given Sunday" might be your cup of tea. However, given its contradictory narrative, possibly seizure-inducing overdone mix of images and noise, and patience-testing running time, "Any Given Sunday" does not warrant a recommendation, as much as I would like what Stone has done in the past.