In the world of professional American football created by director Oliver Stone (U-Turn, JFK), everyone's trying to get the most from the players until their battered bodies give out. Aside from talk by coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) about teamwork and tradition, this film is a grim, multimedia blitz to warm the cockles of any cynic's pocketbook.
The relentless clawing for position extends from the offensive coordinator (Aaron Eckhart) angling to become top coach to the ageing quarterback Jack "Cap" Rooney (Dennis Quaid) who's worried the young Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) will replace him. Doctors who let injured players risk their lives on the field are rivaled only by Rooney's wife (Lauren Holly), who cares more for his earning potential than his health. Meanwhile the players revel in the easy women, big money and glitzy parties while it lasts.
This film tackles it all: fear of ageing, respect for history, ritual violence, selling out your ideals and loved ones, the purpose of life. Its message is muddled, though high in adrenalin.
Stone is best when he sticks to the plot rather than senseless montages of lightning and confusing split-second shots of the crowd and game. The made-up teams provide some amusement, like the California Crusaders' sidelines including horseback jousts and medieval ladies.
Pacino and Foxx give honest performances as the coach of the fictional Miami Sharks and a third-string rookie who becomes the team star when an injury forces Rooney off the field. But just as we start to understand Foxx's Beaman as more than a cocky young punk who deserves his comeuppance, the film backs down and he starts making nice with the establishment. Stone likewise retreats into a predictable story line, where the good triumph and the bad learn their lesson.
Cameron Diaz does little as the icy team owner so tough she strong-arms the Miami mayor and can calmly shake the hands of naked 300-pound football players in the locker room.
It's appropriate that pro football is played on a Sunday: it's a religion to many. Like gladiators, who the movie evokes, the players are willing to tear each other to pieces for a crowd's amusement. Don't dare tell Oliver Stone it's only a game; you might as well say it's only a movie.