Gilbey on Film: 10 unorthodox sports movies

An antidote to Olympic fever.

This week brings two films which remind us that sports movies are never really about sport. Salute focuses on the Black Power salute given on the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics by the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but it also unpicks the complicity of their fellow medal-winner, the white Australian Peter Norman, in the act. Race, class, prejudice and privilege in a different context are also touched on in Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who competed at the 1924 Olympics; the picture returns to cinemas now, 31 years after its original release. Here are some thoughts on it from Lindsay Anderson, who has a few succulent moments on screen opposite John Gielgud. In a letter to Malcolm McDowell in April 1981, Anderson wrote of the film’s premiere:

I’ve no idea what I’m like in the picture. When my first sequence arrived, I closed my eyes. Later I peeked through half-closed lids. All I can say is, I didn’t seem to be much worse than Gielgud. (I don’t know what he thought. He dashed for the exit at the end of the picture, having told us…that he had booked a bacon-and-egg supper for himself at the Garrick.) The picture itself is lush, over-photographed for my taste - [the cinematographer] David Watkin in his usual pictorial form – and directed with that concentration on image that is the mark of directors who’ve been formed in directing commercials. Hugh [Hudson, the director] is a really nice chap: but not much sense of narrative or performance.

I wonder what Anderson would have made of the ten films I offer up for your consideration in the category of The Unorthodox Sports Movie. Consider the list a slight antidote to Olympic fever, reining in the hyperbole without swearing off sporting activity entirely. Sports movie convention, you see, demands traditionally that nothing less than the future of civilisation must appear to hinge on the outcome of the competition in the final reel. Whether it’s a horse race in Seabiscuit, a boxing match in Rocky or a martial arts contest in The Karate Kid, the entire world should be seen to be punching the air and weeping tears of unadulterated joy. The films below offer a slight corrective to that bombast.

Hoop Dreams

Hardly obscure, this painstaking (and often painful) documentary following two young African-American basketball hopefuls remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time. In this clip, the Tigger-like Arthur Agee visits St Joseph school after being spotted by a talent scout, and ponders an education alongside “different kids, different races.”

Ping Pong

A brilliantly lively Japanese comic-book adaptation with a blissfully batty visual style.

All the Marbles  (also known as The California Dolls)

Peter Falk as a female wrestling manager (he’s not female: the wrestlers are).

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

Alan Clarke’s snooker-vampire-musical. Only in 1980s Britain, eh? Here  is Alun Armstrong, as a Ray Reardon-a-like, performing his big number “I Bite Back” (“I may appear bizarre/ With my predatory features …”) And here is some snooker action with Phil Daniels.

Rudo y Cursi

A witty, overlooked (though not by your trusty NS) soccer comedy starring cinema’s conjoined Mexicans, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

Rollerball

AKA Whip It! for men.

Animalympics

Sassy and soppy in equal measures, this 1980 animated comedy imagines an Olympic Games populated by animals. Here is a scene set to one of Graham (10CC) Gouldman’s songs from the film. You think it’s corny? By the time you’ve endured UK television’s Olympic montages accompanied by Coldplay or Take That, Gouldman’s songs will resemble the Dead Kennedys.

Diggstown (released in the UK as Midnight Sting)

Yes, it’s boxing. But it makes Rocky look like a game of pat-a-cake. 

Breaking Away

A funny, acutely-observed coming-of-age film … on bikes. And here is one of its stars, Daniel Stern, talking now about the movie’s appeal.

The King of Kong

I hear there is a fictional version of this battle-of-the-arcade-champions documentary in the works. Please, let it not be so: this incarnation of the story is note-perfect. And don’t listen to those who tell you that Donkey Kong isn’t a sport: they’ll be saying next that Temple Run doesn’t count as exercise.

"Chariots of Fire" and "Salute" are released 13 July

A still from the 2002 remake of Rollerball (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories