Firm favourites

Taylor Parkes reviews two films about football fighting which despite contrasting styles offer similarly dispiriting end products

It’s not hard to see why film-makers are so fond of football hooliganism. Like the slasher movie or the zombie flick, the hooligan film is a ready-made genre that requires little imagination – it comes complete with thrills and spills, a handful of simple and durable plotlines, obvious characters and motivations, and the possibility of redemption. It gives your film, however poor, immediate appeal to people who like this sort of thing (thugs or ex-thugs, thin-armed daydreamers with a prurient interest in violence), and you can deflect criticism by claiming your movie is “authentic” and “gritty” –even when it is, in truth, no more realistic than In The Night Garden. The fact that your product is repulsive on every level need not concern you. Indeed, it’s kind of the point.

Still, two of the latest offerings suggest that the day of the simple beat-’em-up is gone. Both attempt to forge new ground for the hoolie movie – the low-budget Awaydays tries for a more serious, thoughtful take on people kicking other people’s heads in, while the ludicrous Green Street 2: Stand Your Ground takes the opposite approach, concentrating cliches to the point of absurdity

Green Street 2 is mind-bendingly stupid, even by the standards of the genre. The West Ham firm are banged up in jail, in unfortunate proximity to their opposite numbers from Millwall, at the mercy of a corrupt, sadistic female prison guard so crudely stylised she’d be written out of Prisoner: Cell Block H. Like some ancient video nasty, its unpleasantness is undermined by a strong suspicion that everyone involved was trying not to laugh; the whole thing is so hokey it could be an old Jess Franco women-in-prison movie, the lesbian S&M replaced with (presumably unintentional) homoeroticism, gangs of well-muscled men grappling topless in the sun. The most charitable reading of this film is that it’s some kind of self-parody, and the kindest thing one can say is that the final half-hour, in which the Hammers firm take on the Millwall boys in a jailyard football match (the winners to be rewarded with their freedom!), is so utterly preposterous that you can’t take your eyes off it. At best, it inspires the cheapest and weariest of laughs; at worst, it’s a sustained, beery belch from a deeply dispiriting fantasy world.

is far better, but still a depressing experience (and not just for the reasons the film-makers intended). Based on the surprise-hit novel by Kevin Sampson, it’s an obvious attempt to emulate the street-level soulfulness of Quadrophenia, but it’s undone by a certain sloppiness and a curious moral ambivalence that is intriguing but ultimately very uncomfortable (again, not always by design).

The premise is interesting: Carty is a middle-class teenager obsessed with the local firm, looking to thuggery as an outlet for his angst and anomie. The Pack give him purpose, but he’s soon debased by the violence, finding only emptiness and still deeper alienation. Set in post-punk Liverpool, and made by those-who-were-there, it nails the period detail – wedge haircuts, dope-scented bedsits and Adidas Forest Hills – and its soundtrack knocks spots off the mouldy skinhead punk of Green Street 2. Its problem is its own inarticulacy: it takes on themes of fury and despair without much idea what to do with them, never really sure what the hell it’s trying to say

Isn’t this bright, artistic kid, who chooses to descend into barbarism, a nasty little bastard who should know better? If not, why not? Awaydays has no answers, yet it seems hopelessly in love with these existentialist Bowie fans wielding carpet knives – to the point where its fight scenes are almost surreal. Green Street 2’s incarcerated meatheads are not so much characters as cut-outs, but their mutual brutality is miserably realistic; in Awaydays, skinny, effete teenagers beat gangs of hulking skinheads unconscious, then stroll away without a scratch. For a film that questions the value of mindless, soul-destroying violence, it spends an awfully long time whacking off to it.

Stephen Graham, so laughable as Billy Bremner in The Damned United, fares better here as an ageing, moustachioed ex-squaddie top boy – authentic to the point of nausea – while Liam Boyle is impressive as Elvis, the world-weary misfit of indeterminate sexuality (a fine performance that withstands some really stinking dialogue). But Nicky Bell as Carty is just too realistic, weaselly and mean, impossible to feel for. We are, after all, supposed to identify with this troubled and sensitive soul, even as he acts like a psychotic wanker, but long before the downbeat conclusion you’ve started to hate him, and his pretentious mate with a noose in his flat (“a reminder of the absolute inevitability of death”). For all its good intentions, Awaydays is too weak on characterisation not to seem like apologetics – as a result, it’s really just The Football Factory with better tunes, and a stubborn, self-pitying sentimentality.

From WSC 268 June 2009