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Super Bowl Report

1. 'North Dallas Forty'

February 01, 2009|Martin Miller

Plenty of films have tackled the darker side of sports, but few can match the ferocity of 1979's "North Dallas Forty" in ripping the systemic dehumanizition of players in big-time professional sports. In the movie, adapted from Peter Gent's novel and directed by Ted Kotcheff, the players -- for all their hulk, swagger and fame -- are in the end victims of coaches and corporations whose collective vanity fuels a soul-crushing pursuit of perfection and victory. Despite its seriousness, the film is also among the funniest sports movies ever made.

It stars Nick Nolte as an aging -- and admirably pudgy, for his position -- wide receiver with "the best hands in football" whose independent and sarcastic nature aren't exactly in sync with the ramrod-straight management of the North Dallas Bulls -- a team obviously modeled after Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys. His partner in crime is played by Mac Davis, who is at the top of his game -- with the possible exception of penning "In the Ghetto" for Elvis Presley.

Nolte, weary of the debauchery of league parties, has a conscience, but Davis has none. In surviving the corporatized environment that pro football is becoming, Davis urges Nolte to submit to authority: "You had better learn how to play the game, and I don't mean just the game of football."

There are inspired performances by Bo Svenson and former Oakland Raider John Matuszak as dim-bulb offensive linemen who are just as hilarious in their callousness as they are poignant in their depiction of the joys and pressures of the game. (No less a star is G.D. Spradlin as the machine-like, cruelly manipulative coach.)

The movie, which performed modestly at the box office and today is difficult to find at most rental stores, was mistakenly marketed as an "Animal House"-like ribald comedy overflowing with sex, drugs and laughs. It delivered those things, and quite well, but it also gave much, much more.

-- Martin Miller

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