I’ve never been enamoured of football, or any sport for that matter, cinema being the one true thing that gets my blood pumping in life. Despite this, I can certainly empathise with the passion and fascination that scores of my fellow humans have for teams and/or individuals honing a unique array of skills to execute a performance that is arguably akin to theatre, providing drama, surprises and insight that furnishes spectators with a broadly emotive experience. It’s something that I have respect for, just no personal emotional connection with, let alone a passing capacity to be entertained.
The aspect that tends to be more intriguing for me is the fans themselves. Football fanatics, be it for reasons of birthplace, hereditary fealty or underdog inspiration, develop an existential identification for the respective teams they support, a victory bestowing indescribable euphoria, defeat often signalling crushing depression, and all with a trenchant undercurrent of poignancy. Team rivalries also inevitably give way to tribalism. More often than not, this takes the form of beer-propelled banter and good-natured roughhousing among punters at the pub or stadium, but for folks more in tune with the lesser angels of their nature, the most benevolent competitiveness can develop into an almost xenophobic hatred of other teams and their supporters.
The Firm, a 1989 instalment of the Screen Two TV film anthology series directed by the inimitable Alan Clarke, remains the definitive examination of football hooliganism, an ugly phenomenon that was an already well-established moral panic a decade prior in the 1970s. Far from the predictable media depiction of hooligan firms as single-figure brain celled louts getting involved in impromptu skirmishes, it shines a profoundly disturbing light on the fact that many of these groups consist of reasonably intelligent men in well-paying jobs, their structure and violent altercations with rivals firms all being tightly planned and organised. It’s a dark and compelling watch that has lost none of its staying power.
Clive ‘Bexy’ Bissell (Gary Oldman) is an estate agent in his early thirties living a seemingly quaint and comfortable life in the suburbs of London with his wife and toddler son. On the surface, Bexy is a charismatic and likeable success, a working-class lad who ascended to a white-collar career and possessing a sharp wit and gregarious demeanour. He would likely be thoroughly entertaining company were you to make his acquaintance down the local boozer, but as the veneer is slowly chipped at, the reality of the situation is wholly troubling. Bexy is the leader of the Inter City Crew or ICC (a thinly veiled representation of real-life hooligan outfit the Inter City Firm, allegiant to West Ham United) a group of like-minded lads with suit-and-tie professions who relish congregating in their spare time to participate in viciously brutal organised battles with other firms, involving Stanley knives, baseball bats, crowbars, hammers, the whole unwholesome enchilada.
The ICC has a notorious longstanding enmity with the Buccaneers (based on the Millwall Bushwhackers), a similarly dangerous, Mafia-like ensemble of geezer-yuppies who dress to the nines and operate with a pretentious gangster-like swagger. As the film opens, Buccaneers lieutenant Yeti (Philip Davis), a snarling and diminutive white-ponytailed sociopath, drives a car at full speed through the field on which the ICC boys are having a casual game of footie, almost gravely injuring several of them in the process. This incident is actually pretty tame in comparison to a lot of the subsequent confrontations that the two firms have throughout the work.
With everybody highly anticipating an upcoming football tournament that is being hosted in the Netherlands, Bexy has a groundbreaking proposition up his sleeve: The ICC, Buccaneers and any other firm in the local vicinity must amalgamate into one large and powerful super-firm, with the mind to create an unpredictably formidable opponent for their Dutch rivals at the big event. As luck would have it, the Buccaneers are impressed and enticed by the idea, but they take a very dim view of what they perceive as Bexy’s presumptuous claim to the position of leader or ‘top boy’. They resolve this contention with a counter-proposition: The ICC and The Buccaneers will engage in a round-robin series of battles, and whoever comes out on top will function as the shot-callers of the proposed super-firm. A quintessentially hostile agreement is reached, all concerned parties on standby waiting for the mayhem to commence.
This is a genuinely frightening film. In what is rightfully lauded as one of the greatest performances of his entire career, Oldman is electrifying as Bexy, the chipper charmer who is as livened up by extreme violence as he is engaging in boisterous ribbing with his pals. His self-image sees him as a respected, salt-of-the-earth character among the local community, although his wife (a superb Lesley Manville, married to Oldman at the time, no less) bluntly tells him that people essentially think he’s an idiot, apprehensive to say so to his face as they are wary of his unpredictably violent nature. The warring factions attending truce meetings in fine suits and flank formation, these men see themselves as something of an old guard when it comes to honour and masculinity, believing that they possess the open-hearted grit of the war generation and a fierce code of integrity commonly ascribed to old-school crime syndicates. The latter example is fitting in terms of similarity of irony, in that you can dress and carry yourself as sharply and stoically as you please, if you’re a ruthless and violent animal it’s no different to a pig in lipstick.
It only gets violent a handful of times in The Firm, but the aesthetic wrapped around it leaves an indelible, nauseating mark. I’m reminded of another socially realistic favourite of mine, Scars with Jason Isaacs, where his character comments on his violent former life lamenting ”How pointless and ridiculous it all was. For no fuckin’ reason, really”. A sentiment brilliantly executed here, the messy nastiness framing an antithesis of excitement, rather painting a distressing picture of men who are clearly unstable as hell, thinking nothing of slicing an opponent’s face open or potentially giving them brain damage with a blunt object. The fights are authentically unforgiving and grim, and ultimately a plaintive sketch of utterly futile hate. It’s made all the more stark by the fact that Bexy’s father is a former hooligan who openly encourages his son and vicariously relives his glory days through him.
Other iconic ‘hoolie’ films completely pale in comparison. I.D. from 1995 is certainly commanding viewing, but a lot of the acting has a sixth-form play vibe to it, Reece Dinsdale overdoing the malevolent yob snarl somewhat. It does, however, at least make an effort to portray this world for the perilous and unlovely thing that it is, in diametric opposition to the likes of Nick Love’s The Football Factory. For me, The Football Factory is so bad it’s good, an utterly moronic and immature, Nuts Magazine ‘lads lads lads!’ illustration of the psyche and motivations of football hooligans. It’s rather badly shot, Danny Dyer cannot act his way out of a shower curtain, it is incoherent in characterisation and plot, and doesn’t even make a cogent point about anything. But it is also genuinely hilarious for those exact reasons. The Football Factory is to hooliganism what The Lavender Hill Mob is to organised crime, and you’ll forgive me for saying that ‘missing the point’ seems to be Nick Love’s raison d’etre. It stands to reason that he is the name behind a diabolical remake of this very film, released in 2009.
If you’ve never seen The Firm, do yourself a big favour and get a copy right now. It is superbly acted, excellently scripted, there is earthy and realistic humour that punctuates the nastiness and it is equal parts sad, shocking and invigorating. ‘Celebrity’ football hooligans such as Jason Marriner and Carlton Leach communicate a rather silly and myopic view of this lifestyle, and it stands to reason that most of their stories are hotly contested. This dissection of a very particular genus of tribalism is intelligent and well-crafted, and most importantly, has stood the test of time in terms of thematic demonstration. Technology nowadays may help to make the problem worse, but it isn’t creating a new mentality, it’s just bolstering an ancient one. One of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen, stick it on (you mug).