UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT: Any Given Sunday, with Jamie Foxx, Al Pacino and LL Cool J (second from right), is full of narrative fumbles. (Photo: Warner)
I. While boxing has Rocky and Raging Bull and basketball can boast of Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams, there's never really been a truly great football film. Still, there have been plenty of damn fine ones, and leading the draft is Heaven Can Wait, the irresistible comic fantasy (and remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan) in which L.A. Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is accidentally killed before his time and must find a way to return to his team and lead them to victory. Back in 1978, this was a huge box office hit and recipient of nine Oscar nominations; today, it's still a charming crowd-pleaser, and as a lifelong Rams fan, I'd rank Joe Pendleton right up there with Norm Van Brocklin, Roman Gabriel and Kurt Warner (OK, so he's fictional; sue me).
II. On the other end of the spectrum, the worst football flick would have to be Johnny Be Good, a 1988 atrocity notable only for introducing a va-va-voomish Uma Thurman to the movie-going masses. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly wretched effort in which an absurdly miscast Anthony Michael Hall (yes, the dork from The Breakfast Club) plays a hotshot high school quarterback being illegally wooed by college scouts.
III. Did I mention that Johnny Be Good includes a Ted Nugent song titled Skintight? Let's not even go there.
IV. Almost as awful as Johnny Be Good -- though only moderately about football -- is the action bloodbath The Last Boy Scout (1991), with a private eye (Bruce Willis) and his ex-football player buddy (Damon Wayans) teaming up to investigate a pro team owner who might be dealing in corruption. The climax features a guy falling off a tall building and getting sliced to pieces by a helicopter's whirling blades as he plummets to earth. Lovely.
V. Any Given Sunday (1999), Oliver Stone's epic endeavor, clearly wanted to be the end-all and be-all of football films, yet the most notable thing about this disappointing movie is the number of gaffes. My favorite is the ever-changing scoreboard: In one shot during a critical game, it reads something like 35-24, yet a second later, it reads 14-10!
VI. Any Given Sunday probably also represents the only time in football history that a team scoring a touchdown is automatically awarded seven points even before the extra point is attempted.
VII. If you ever wondered why Burt Reynolds looked so at ease playing football in The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977), that's because he was a real-life star running back at Florida State; he was even drafted by the Baltimore Colts, but a knee injury forced him to make new career choices.
GRIN AND BEAR IT: Former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus and the Busterburger torture pickle in Hamburger: The Motion Picture. (Photo: Busterburger Limited Partnership)
VIII. When it comes to the worst performance ever given by a former football player, the competition is fierce. Forced to choose, I'd probably have to go with former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus: In the rightfully forgotten Hamburger: The Motion Picture (1985), he plays Drootin, a fast-food restaurant manager who enjoys torturing his employees and calling people "peter cheese."
IX. Butkus' Hall of Shame competition includes Joe Namath in Avalanche Express (1979), Howie Long in Firestorm (1998), and Terry Bradshaw in The Cannonball Run (1981).
X. Among active players, Brett Favre's cameo appearance may be the capper to a great running gag in There's Something About Mary (1998), but good Lord, the poor boy can't adequately deliver a line to save his life.
XI. Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown actually enjoyed a healthy screen career, yet his best appearance was in name only -- specifically, the hilarious scene in Sleepless In Seattle (1993) in which Tom Hanks and Victor Garber tearfully discuss his demise at the end of The Dirty Dozen.
XII. Like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson also had a sustained run in film (until you-know-what), appearing in (among others) The Towering Inferno (1974), Capricorn One (1978) and, most memorably, three Naked Gun films (1988-94).
XIII. Show me the Oscar! Cuba Gooding Jr. wins the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his spirited turn as a grandstanding football player in 1996's Jerry Maguire.
XIV. Speaking of Jerry Maguire, star Tom Cruise was no stranger to football films when he took the part of a sports agent in that mega-hit: He had previously portrayed a high school football star in 1983's All the Right Moves.
XV. Kevin Costner owns the baseball movie with three cinematic at-bats, yet no one has matched that feat in pigskin pictures. Coming close is Dennis Quaid, who portrayed has-been football players in both Everybody's All-American (1988) and Any Given Sunday.
XVI. Time for a confession: I've never seen Brian's Song, the acclaimed 1971 TV movie (with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers) that's routinely called one of the greatest of all tearjerkers. Hopefully, I'll get to it in '04.
XVII. Incidentally, Brian's Song was remade in 2001. To this day, no one knows why.
XVIII. Howard Cosell, longtime sportscaster on NFL Monday Night Football, was hired by Woody Allen to play himself in 1971's Bananas, where he offers a blow-by-blow account of a political assassination. Then in 1973's futuristic Sleeper, Allen included a scene in which a man watches a Cosell tape and surmises, "We weren't sure at first what to make of this, but we developed a theory: We feel that when people committed great crimes against the state, they were forced to watch this."
XIX. By the way, Cosell was born in Winston-Salem.
XX. The best performance as a coach in a football film? Denzel Washington is worthy for Remember the Titans (2000), but my ballot is cast in favor of Jack Warden's Oscar-nominated turn in Heaven Can Wait.
XXI. How about the worst? It pains me to write this because he's one of my all-time favorites, but Gene Hackman delivers perhaps the least interesting performance of his otherwise stellar career in The Replacements (2000). The esteemed actor is on complete autopilot (even his chuckles sound forced); then again, working opposite Keanu Reeves in his human-vacuum mode probably took a lot out of him.
XXII. Perhaps the earliest major movie to incorporate football into its storyline was the 1925 comedy The Freshman, a silent classic which climaxes with star Harold Lloyd's bumbling heroics during a university match-up.
XXIII. The funniest football game can be spotted in the Marx Brothers' insane Horse Feathers (1932), in which the boys somehow introduce a chariot to the sport.
XXIV. The runner-up award in the funniest game sweepstakes goes to the raucous skirmish in the film version of M*A*S*H (1970).
XXV. Not so funny: The limp 1986 comedy The Best of Times, with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell as two guys seeking to restage a pivotal high school game 20 years later; the woeful Necessary Roughness (1991), featuring an eclectic college team fronted by Scott Bakula, Kathy Ireland and Sinbad (nuff said).
XXVI. Pat O'Brien may be playing the titular Notre Dame coach in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), but it was Ronald Reagan who earned plenty of good notices for his able performance as dying football star George Gipp ("Win one for the Gipper!").
XXVII. One for the kids: Gus (1976), a likable live-action Disney film about a football-playing mule.
XXVIII. The mid-70s saw the release of two pictures dealing with crazed killers terrorizing football games. First out of the gate was 1976's terrible Two-Minute Warning, with Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes seeking to stop a sniper picking off patrons at a championship game. This film was so cheap, they had to make up generic teams ("Los Angeles" and "Baltimore") rather than pay the NFL for use of their licensed properties.
XXIX. The other 70s football-frenzy flick was 1977's Black Sunday, with Bruce Dern as a crazed Vietnam vet hooking up with terrorists to destroy the Super Bowl with the help of the Goodyear blimp. Infinitely superior to Two-Minute Warning, this one expertly melded its tense storyline with the real-life Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.
XXX. Most unjustly overlooked football film? North Dallas Forty (1979), anchored by Nick Nolte's excellent central performance and featuring a climactic game that doesn't quite end as you might expect.
XXXI. The supporting cast of North Dallas Forty included former Oakland Raider John Matuszak, who appeared in a handful of films (most notably The Goonies) before ODing at the age of 38.
XXXII. A movie that's developed a fervent following despite being merely OK is the based-on-fact Rudy (1993), with Sean Astin (Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) as an average kid whose mission in life is to play ball for Notre Dame.
XXXIII. The minor football flick The Program (1993), starring James Caan and Halle Berry, earned some notoriety in its day, thanks to a scene in which the dumb jocks lie down in the middle of a roaring highway to test their machismo. Real-life kids began emulating this stunt, leading to numerous injuries and even one death; rather than viewing this as a welcome strengthening of the human gene pool, Disney yanked the scene from the picture a few weeks into its original run.
XXXIV. Six years before headlining White Men Can't Jump, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson appeared together as two of football coach Goldie Hawn's players in 1986's Wildcats. Though cast as high school players, Snipes was actually 23 at the time and Harrelson was 24.
XXXV. The 1979 TV movie Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (starring Jane Seymour) was successful enough to warrant Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders II the next year.
XXXVI. Conversely, the 1978 porn classic Debbie Does Dallas was successful enough to warrant multiple sequels (not to be confused with multiple orgasms), including Debbie Does Wall Street (1991) and Debbie Does Dallas: The Next Generation (1997).
XXXVII. The top moneymaking football film is 1998's The Waterboy, with Adam Sandler as a half-wit who becomes an unlikely gridiron hero. Its $161 million gross edges out Jerry Maguire's $153 million haul.
XXXVIII. To date, there has never been a movie about the great sport of badminton.