To the readers of the Retro Set, I wish you all Happy World Cup Month, or as I like to think of it, Happy America Finally Pays Attention to Soccer Month. And what a way to kick off (haha) the binge watching, screaming, crying and money losing week than to watch a film about football (soccer) hooligans crying, being violent, losing money, and wanting to fit in? It’s… really something.
A remake of the Alan Clarke television movie that originally aired in 1989, Nick Love’s The Firm is a gritty, but uneven examination of hero worship within the confines of a specific culture. In 1980s London, teenaged Dom finds himself in admiration of Bex (Paul Anderson), a temperamental, foul mouthed, yet all the same handsome and charismatic football hooligan. Dom finds himself embroiled in “the form”: the group of football fans whose proclivities towards battling with other football fans results in widespread violence.
The Firm is basically the same as your average gangster film, involving a young and lost soul looking for their way and finding it in activities that are less than savory. They get involved, reach a point of no return, and are torn between the self-awareness they feel (disgust at what goes on) and the temptation and desire for status. GoodFellas is a good example of this, but other films constantly follow this kind of formula. What it ends up being is a rumination on masculinity: one person’s fluidity and attempt to understand what that exactly means against an entire culture’s rigid expectations of what it is.
Which leads us to Dom, whose hobbies involve cat calling, not working, and being generally aimless with his best friend. Only a casual observer of football, he nevertheless falls under the spell of Bex, who, as leader of “the firm”, represents the masculine ideal. What is more common in the gangster films that follow this kind of formula, hero worship and all, is that they are, more often than not, displaced at home or have some sort of Freudian backstory which works as a rationale to explain the actions they’re taking now. (Though this is not always true, just seems to be a trope I’ve observed.) Dom is not like this. He comes from a relatively stable home and his parents seem competent enough. Yet, he feels alienated and anxious anyways.
The search for masculinity leads to Bex in an unpleasant manner: a collision in a nightclub involving his friend’s fractured nose. But what about that violence appeals to Dom? Bex doesn’t even seem that outwardly wealthy, but what is for certain is that, again with a gangster comparison, he is like the Godfather of the footballing world. His influence is infamous, as demonstrated by the many fights he instigates with other fan groups.
Such a mob mentality seems rather disturbing in any sense. Football culture is notorious to the extent that even I, as someone who does not watch sports, am aware of the sociopathic tendencies of some football fans in the United Kingdom. What is worrisome about the influence that Bex and the firm have on Dom is that it gives him a very violent, and basically incorrect, perception of the world. While his sycophantic admiration of Bex is concerning in and of itself, that he allows Bex to pollute his mind, turn him even more hopeless, cynical, and isolated than before makes it even more disturbing.
It’s a toxic culture that does Dom no favors whatsoever. While he himself rarely becomes violent, simple involvement puts him at risk. The caveat of those kinds of stories is that the director may lean towards moralizing: Keep your children away from these people lest they become hooligans. But to assign that message to Love’s The Firm would be too easy. Love actually seems ambivalent about it, which might be part of the issue. While it isn’t necessary that he take an immediate stance, there’s a lack of emotional undercurrent that makes us care either way. Besides the cringing at the bombastic gang wars, the audience is relegated to mere observation of terrible things.
Nonetheless, it’s a competent film. Music infused for seemingly no reason other than to further establish the era, for a film with a “gritty” nearly “kitchen sink realistic” subject matter, it’s surprisingly saturated and well shot. But the emotional core is wobbly at best. As an examination of a cultural understanding of masculinity, The Firm is fairly interesting, but as a narrative and story, it’s only fine. Not quite a goal.
Boutique label Twilight Time recently released Nick Love’s The Firm on blu-ray, as part of its limited edition series.
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