We Watch Them So You Don’t Have To. The Worst Football Films Of All Time 1: The Firm (2009)

By on Jan 27, 2011 in Latest, Opinion | 1 comment

This time last week, we trailed our round-up of the ten worst football films ever made. We meant it. This evening, we kick-off with the first two, and first up is Nick Love’s re-make of the 1988 film, “The Firm”.

Dipping one’s toe into the world of hoolie-porn can be a dispiriting business. Its emergence may or may not be related to the the onslaught of “laddism” in the early part of the last decade, but a couple of early examples of it, including the mildly unsettling (and only occasionally hilarious) 1995 BBC film ID, are reasonably watchable films. Since then, though, there has been a marked deterioration in their quality. The Firm makes it into our top ten, and it’s not the only hoolie-porn film to do so. Indeed, it’s not the worst in our list, but it’s pretty terrible, not least because it is a re-make of the other reasonably watchable film from the genre, Alan Clark’s 1988 film, umm, The Firm, and it palls in comparison with the film that it may or may not be a homage to.

The Firm (1988) is a gritty, grainy story of internecine rivalries between West Ham United and Millwall hooligan firms that is as much a statement about the state of Britain in the late 1980s as it is about football or football hooliganism. It deals specifically with Bex, a married estate agent with a young child by day, and a hooligan by night, and the film is propelled along by the strength of Gary Oldman’s performance in this role, which wavers between sociopathic and psychopathic before falling firmly into the latter camp. For the re-make, Bex is back but the feel of the film is different. There will be little grit on display here – this much is evident as the Warner Bros logo at the start morphs into a neon sign – and plenty of stylising. The world of The Firm (2009) is a 1980s theme park, in which everyone wears the latest sportswear and the world is coloured in the brightest colours imaginable.

The Firm (1988) did make a reference to the induction of some younger people into Bex’s group, but in the remake this becomes the central plot line. It’s prominence, however, reveals it to be almost incomprehensible. In the original, this initiation is just another part of a maelstrom of other activity. Here, however, pushed into the limelight, it requires a little thought. Director Nick Love’s other works include The Football Factory and The Business, and whose Wikipedia page states that, “Love is well known for collaborating with actor Danny Dyer”, a statement which at least means that the patron saint of hoolie-porn gets at least one reference in this list. As with his other films, The Firm (2009) is based on caricatures – and poorly thought-out caricatures, at that.

The Firm (2009) doesn’t really go to the trouble of explaining what the appeal of the youngster, Dom, is to Bex or, more significantly, what the appeal of Bex is to Dom, and this is a massive failing on its part. Gary Oldman’s Bex was a sociopath, but this made him at least charismatic. Paul Anderson’s Bex, by comparison, is just a bit of, well, a prick. No explanation is given as to why he gets the rush that he does from fighting and drinking; the emptiness of his “other” life in comparison with the edginess of his life as a troublemaker isn’t properly communicated. The film might have been more interesting had it followed the angle, which it kind of hinted at, that against any other background Dom and Bex’s relationship could have become a sexual one but there is no sex to be had here, unless we are to include the relative pornography of looking at or buying expensive Italian sportswear, which they do a lot of. We can see that Dom may be a little bit infatuated with Bex, but the question of why remains utterly elusive.

Indeed, communication is a problem for the film in general. One exchange, between Dom and the teenage buddy that he leaves behind for “the firm”, runs as follows: “I should stick a Tampax in you.” “Why?” “Cos you’re a cunt.” The audience is left to wonder whether it is supposed to laugh at this joke, but there is little time to do so, because Love’s East London is a Van Dyke-esque land in which strings of Cockney rhyming slang are mushed together to form what may or may not be whole sentences. No-one – and I say this as someone who was born in London and lived there during the 1980s – has ever spoken in the way that some of the characters in The Firm (2009) do. Similarly, no cliché is too laboured for this film. The line, “you look like a liquorice allsort”, in reference to a garish tracksuit, is just one example of a script that often feels as if it was written by someone that has never actually interacted with another human being.

The other main plot point is the simmering rivalry between the West Ham and Millwall gangs. The Firm (1988) sees the two groups looking to come together for the 1988 European Championships against a background of their respective leaders’ intensifying bickering, but Love can’t even get this right. He has brought the action forward by four years to 1984, but discussion between the Bex and his Millwall counterpart still revolves around the European Championships in Germany and who will lead the England “firm” – somewhat surprising, considering that in 1984 England had just failed to qualify for a European Championship finals in France and were, to put it mildly, some way off qualification for the 1988 tournament. This results in a concluding fight scene that ends on a (possibly accidentally) understated ending, leaving its audience at the exact moment that things might start getting interesting.

The Firm (2009) is a day-glow, neon-lit, superficial nightmare which says less about the 1980s than you would learn on the subject from reading the back cover of “Now That’s What I Call The Eighties”. Lovers of eighties casual-wear – not all of whom by a long chalk are in the slightest bit interested in football hooliganism – may find something of interest here, but for the rest of us there is nothing to be learnt here about football (which, in all honesty, is conspicuous for large parts of the film only by its absence), male relationships or the peculiar testosterone rush that some men seem to get from hitting each other. More troublingly, seeing it first might put the uninitiated off the idea of watching The Firm (1988), which is a reasonable enough film. Love once said, “I’m not making films for film critics. I’m not trying to be an arthouse filmmaker… I’m making films for the fucking chav generation”. With The Firm (2009), he was selling the “chav generation” (whatever the hell that is) short.

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    1 Comment

  1. I agree that ID was watchable in parts not least due to the rival hoolie firms representing mythical clubs from Shadwell and Wapping.

    But that movie and the original version of The Firm never glorified the violence. Love, on the other hand, is steeped in it. I think it’s always telling that the purveyors of hooligan porn have clearly never been within 10 miles of real life examples. If they had, they would realise there is nothing glamorous about it.

    Lanterne Rouge

    January 30, 2011

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