1½ stars (out of four)
Now and then comes a movie so knotted up by its own hypocrisies, you wonder if it might benefit from some therapy. "Green Street Hooligans" is this week's patient, a deeply conflicted head-banger starring Elijah Wood, whose eyes see more than yours do, playing a Harvard-schooled journalism major visiting his sister's family in London. There he gets sucked into the vicious subculture of the English football "firms," which are fan clubs with a license to maim. These gangs of London, teeming with sentimental, loyal psychopaths, could destroy the gangs of New York with a single glower. At least that's how it plays in director and co-writer Lexi Alexander's depiction.
Framed by his Harvard roommate for cocaine possession, Matt Bruckner (Wood) responds to his expulsion by following up on a London job lead. There he reunites with his sister (Claire Forlani), who has started a family with her tight-lipped husband, Steve (Marc Warren), a scary man who once ruled the West Ham United football team's firm. Now the Green Street Elite is run by Steve's brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam). He ferries Matt, the visiting Yank, off to his first match, as well as his first rumble with another firm, peppering him with various words of warning, among them: Never, ever refer to the game as "soccer."
The three worst things on the planet, Pete says, amid reams of clumsy exposition explaining football and football hooliganism to an American film audience, are Yanks, policeman and journalists. Matt is two out of three, though he tells his newfound mates he's a history major. When cornered on a grubby street corner by another team's firm, Matt sputters ineffectively: "I'm just a tourist." And then the games begin: The Green Street boys appear out of nowhere, and cinematographer Alexandar Buono and editor Paul Trejo slaughter everything in sight with a hopped-up, herky-jerky bloodbath, the first of many.
This is "Fight Club" without the irony or the metaphysical gaming. In the best films exploring a frightening subculture, we taste the terror and yet understand the attraction, or at least the attraction/repulsion. In "Green Street Hooligans," the "attraction" part of it seems ridiculous. Every time one of the hooligans suggests another ultra-violence outing, Matt looks pensive for a second, says "I'll go," and you think: Whaddya, an idiot? The movie doesn't know whether to wag its finger at the carnage, as it pours on the elegiac music and slow-motion suffering, or instill the crudest sort of melodramatic bloodlust in the audience. The approach to the subject feels hoked-up: Instead of digging into the psyche and daily life of English football hooligans, we have to have a movie starring a theoretically bankable American, playing a nice guy who gets mixed up with The Other. "I'd never lived closer to danger," Wood says in voice-over, after some drinking binge or other, "yet I'd never felt safer." We hear it, but we don't believe it.
Director Alexander goes out of her way not to indict the sport itself. There's a scene where Pete, who coaches kids for a living, trots out his adorable preteens to kick Matt's Yank behind on the soccer field. Sorry, football field. (Great, now some East End lout's gonna bash my head in.) Yet the way director Alexander piles up the off-field violence, by way of frenzied, even risible film technique, the implication is that the firms in questionhowever fictionalizedare just doing what comes naturally. They're noble savages, the bleeding happy few, a band of pickled brothers, drenching the cobblestones in gore for the love of the team.
The movie's Web site (www.hooligansthefilm.com) attempts to make a virtue out of such wildly mixed messages. On the site, director Alexander, herself a riot-prone football firm member in her youth before she became a karate and kickboxing champion, says that she hopes audiences take away three things. One: Spend time with your kids. Two: Whether you're addicted to coke or skull-cracking, the addiction will affect your entire community. And three: "YOU NEVER RUN, YOU NEVER LEAVE YOUR MATE BEHIND!" Huh? Wha? So much for the first two.
At a Chicago screening of "Green Street Hooligans" the other night, co-producer Gigi Pritzker told the crowd about the Web site's video game, wherein the player can wallop, bloodlessly, a rival team or the police. Wood, also at the screening, thought Pritzker was telling a joke. The film itself is uncomfortably, hypocritically close to being one itself.
'Green Street Hooligans'
Directed by Lexi Alexander; screenplay by Dougie Brimson, Joshua Shelov and Lexi Alexander; cinematography by Alexander Buono; production design by Tom Brown; music by Christopher Franke; edited by Paul Trejo; produced by Gigi Pritzker, Deborah Del Prete and Donald Zuckerman. A Sony Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (for brutal violence, pervasive language and some drug use).
Matt Bruckner - Elijah Wood
Pete Dunham - Charlie Hunnam
Shannon Dunham - Claire Forlani
Steve Dunham - Marc Warren
Bover - Leo Gregory