North Dallas Forty.
A wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls, Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is past but his prime but still a very reliable player who the team counts on in go-to situations seemingly week in and week out. He's coming off an especially strong performance, hauling in the game-winning catch, but football is a week to week sport. With his friend and the team's quarterback, Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), Phil has come to rely on painkillers to survive from game to game, not to mention the recreational drugs, increasing drinking and meaningless sexual encounters. It's becoming a lot to handle for Elliott, the receiver questioning his career choice, the business behind it, and the possibility of that career coming to an end quicker than he would have liked. The next game is fast approaching, and the Bulls need a win more than ever. Can Phil pull it together again?
Yowza, what a good movie, a sports movie that isn't often mentioned as one of the genre's best. It certainly deserves to be mentioned in the conversation. Based off the bestselling novel from Peter Gent (a former wide receiver), 'North' is a not-so thinly veiled dig at the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s when Gent was with the team. It is a hell of a story, a damning, indicting look at something fans take for granted at times. What goes on in this 1979 could be shocking for audiences currently, much less 30-plus years ago. This is honest, uncomfortable, funny, depressing and one of those brutally underrated movies -- kudos director Ted Kotcheff -- that has an air of authenticity that could only come from someone who's been in the locker rooms, the practice fields, the training room and the postgame parties. You feel like you're getting a window into something dark and disturbing. It's not just something we watch as fans on the weekend, but a cutthroat business with money as the bottom line.
With Nolte leading a strong ensemble cast, 'North' offers more than a few memorable moments. The opener sets the tone immediately, Nolte's Elliott waking up and going through his morning routine. He can barely make it to the tub to soak in the water. Yeah, the game-winning catch is glamorous, but at what cost? I loved the excesses of the postgame party, the Bulls celebrating with a raucous, out of control blowout. As big and crazy as the party is, the pregame moments in the locker room are just as effective. We run the gamut of preparations, some quietly readying themselves, others psyching themselves up for the game. None of these moments feel overdone or forced, and it would have been easy for the story to take that extra step forward to over-the-top. In ways that just watching the games never do, you get a sense as a viewer what it means to survive as a professional football player through the ups and the downs.
Who better to play the gravely-voiced veteran wide receiver who's hanging on to what he loves -- playing football -- better than Nick Nolte? I submit that no one is better. Nolte delivers a great performance as Phil Elliott, a skilled receiver who doesn't have the most ability but works at it religiously, relying on some of the best hands in football. It's great seeing his development (the story takes place over a little week) as he weighs the pros and cons of what he does for a living. His friendship and working relationship with Davis' Seth provides some great human moments as well as some that just make you cringe. We see the difference too between the star quarterback (Davis, a singer, holding his own as a character if not a football player) who the team so desperately depends on, and the far-more replaceable wide receiver. This is a business, a lesson we learn all too harshly.
Who else to look for? A very strong ensemble as we see the players, coaching staff of the Bulls, the owner and management, anyone and everyone. Playing a variation on legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry, G.D. Spradlin plays Bulls head coach B.A. Strothers, an authoritarian leader, with Charles Durning as his rah-rah, get in your face coordinator. Steve Forrest is slimy and smooth as Conrad Hunter, the Bulls' owner who wants a championship for Dallas, Dabney Coleman as his brother and general manager. Dayle Haddon plays Charlotte, a woman removed from the sport Phil falls for while Savannah Smith Boucher is a far-more casual sexual acquaintance. Bo Svenson and John Matuszak are terrifying as two of the Bulls offensive linemen, embodying the concept of football players as modern-day gladiators.
As the movie develops though, it's the business of the sport and football that takes the spotlight. We see snippets of a game, just a few plays on one drive in a key game between Dallas and Chicago, the plays shot almost in complete darkness so we can't see the stands (and fans, probably cheaper this way). It's quick and effective without overstaying its welcome. I was genuinely surprised by where the story went in the final 15 minutes, an appropriately dark finale that works on basically all levels to show how ridiculous the sport and the business can be. A classic sports movie that deserves far more of a reputation. Now if Nolte's Phil would just stop wearing that stupid cap....
North Dallas Forty (1979): ***/****