Usual suspects

It's quite a coincidence – a film about hooliganism has come out just before Euro 2004. David Stubbs finds barely a redeeming feature in people who really should know better

As evidence of the mindset of fevered gormlessness in which this film was forged, director Nick Love says he wanted to make a film about the white working-class men “who make up 70 per cent of this country”. That demographic howler speaks more about a disproportionate fascination with hooliganism, its cama­raderie, its violence, its blood and honour, than about reality, about which The Football Factory proudly says next to nothing.

There may be some who find authenticity in this film, but the “truth” about hooliganism is in flux. To say it’s a thing of the past is complacent, to say it’s as prevalent as ever is alarmist. It recrudesces, dies down, is displaced. Its sociology has been raked over hun­dreds of times, often by writers concealing their hard-ons beneath the baggy trousers of academic rhetoric. Even those who didn’t particularly want to know about hooliganism probably know all they need to by now.

The Football Factory bristles with bravado, imagines it’s revealing ugly truths, breezing up the skirts of the prissy liberals. But it’s set in concrete cliche. You’re shocked, but only that the filmmakers imagine they’re saying or doing anything new here. The narrative voiceover, the freezeframe when introducing characters, filch directly from Lock, Stock… and Trainspotting. An early wind-up scene is a straight steal from Goodfellas. Still, they do arrive, like Livingstone at the Victoria Falls, upon one startling observation. The hool­ies do it, apparently, for “the buzz”. Oh, yes.

The Football Factory, however, has all the buzz of a dead wasp in an ancient jam jar. Based on John King’s novel, it’s about a Chelsea firm gearing up for a ruck with their Millwall counterparts and the crisis of one of its younger members, who has a premonition of death. There’s one solid performance, that of Frank Harper as the Tony Soprano-esque Billy Bright, albeit with bone in lieu of psychological complexity. The rest of the cast, however, come on like an assortment of Rada students doing “cockney” and old-timers grateful for work. You expect from Danny Dyer’s Tommy Johnson, the narrator, some semblance of humanity, some longing to break out of the hoolie syndrome. “You’re bright,” urges an older, ex-firm member. “Think about it.” But he isn’t. He’s a pudgy-faced, zero-dimensional, obnoxious, self-pitying, lairy shit, not unlike the film’s target audience. You realise his narrative isn’t a moral torchlight, but a means of filling what might otherwise be reflective silences. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the script sparkled – but this is the witless braying out to the witless. After a flashback to Billy’s dad chasing off new Asian neighbours, Johnson narrates: “With parents like this he were never gonna end up in Greenpeace!” The rising sneer invites the response: “Wahey, I should facking coco. Greenpeace? Wankahs!”

The makers claim The Football Factory is “moral”, but that’s belied by the marketing (the director gurgling about how well screenings went down with Cardiff’s Soul Crew) and the timing of its release, prior to Euro 2004. It’s also belied by the conclusion, in which only a copper-bottomed tosser could take satisfaction. No pulpit hysteria here – this film will have no bearing on levels of violence in Portugal. Still, it doesn’t help. Nor is it helpful that the film provides no sense of the peaceable majority, passionate about football but wanting absolutely rid of these over-romanticised boneheads. The action takes place in a south London vacuum, as if the characters are invisible to the wider community.

One could wish that The Football Factory had been a different sort of film, except that its makers shouldn’t be making films at all. Every plot device is tediously predictable, contrived or implausible. Chara­cters such as Jamie Foreman’s bigoted cab driver (whom the hoolies eschew, in a strange, cack-handed attempt to establish politically correct brownie points for the film) are pitifully stereotypical. As are the middle-class potential in-laws, who might as well be pinstriped cardboard cut-outs, to whom a lead character makes the film’s keynote speech, deriding “desperate suburban lives” against which, apparently, hooliganism is a glorious, Betjemanesque rebellion. This drivel would never emerge from the mouth of a hooligan, to whom cocking a snook at Acacia Avenue is not an uppermost priority, but would from a self-loathing, hooligan-fetishising middle-class type.

It adds further grist to the feeling that this film was made amid the whiff of takeaway cappuccinos, drawn from that contemporary generation of “geezers” who “should know better” who, depressingly, line up voluntarily alongside those who don’t know better. Love brags that this film will “disturb” Guardian– and Independent-reading types. Well, I’m a Guardian– and Independent-reading type. Why? Because I don’t want to stay stupid. The kind of stupid person that would either make, or be thrilled by, a wretched film such as this.

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month