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STO Soccer Film Review: Victory

In 1981, John Huston, honored Hollywood director and ten-time Oscar nominee, decided he wanted to make a soccer movie. Huston had been a film titan for five decades and helmed some of early American cinema’s classic pictures like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Maltese Falcon.

Huston’s movies were provacative and compelling because he, more than any other modern director, knew how to inspire his actors to give their best performance. He directed fifteen different actors who would receive Oscar nominations for their performances in his films, including Humphrey Bogart, Albert Finney, Jack Nicholson and his daughter, Anjelica Huston.

But by 1981, Huston was growing older, bored and severely cantankerous. Mike Nichols once wrote that Huston made bets on soccer games in a telephone booth outside the studio while his assistant directors shot his films. Whether that’s true is debatable, but it is clear that the man’s later work paled in comparison to his early canon.

But, even in 1981, if Huston wanted to shoot a film, the picture got made. Of course, he needed funding like any other director, so he got himself some recognizable actors (Sly Stallone, Michael Caine), some great soccer talent (Pele) and 250,000 Hungarian extras (I bet the extras were the cheapest of the three too) and decided to make a movie about the world’s most beautiful game, soccer. He probably would have been better off just betting on soccer though than than trying to make a movie about it.

If you’ve never seen his homage to soccer, Victory, here’s a little synopsis:

During WWII, the Nazis decide to drum up a little good ol’ fashioned German nationalism (which always ends well) by pitting their star-studded soccer squad against a ragtag bunch of Ally POWs (those Nazis sure did love propaganda, didn’t they?). The POWs, including Stallone and Caine, agree to play only after they first concoct an elaborate escape plan to put into motion during the game. Only once the match begins, those crazy POWs actually decide to give up their escape plan and try and win the game. They fight valiantly and achieve a great moral victory. Yay!!!!

Sounds like Adam Sandler’s recent remake of The Longest Yard, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it basically is. Only, Sandler’s The Longest Yard was not funny, and Victory is hilarious, albeit unintentionally.

Why is it so funny? Well, it’s actually supposed to be a real dramatic tearjerker. But, the writing sucks, the direction is uninspired and the acting is so bad it makes one long to watch a Ben Affleck film (you know, just to see how a real actor hones his craft).

As for the writing, my criticism may be somewhat unfair. The guy could have wrote a great original draft before the corporate suits messed it up. Everyone knows that the final glossy product in Hollywood rarely resembles the writer’s original intent, and Victory apparently is no exception.

In the screenwriter’s original draft, the POWs are told that if they throw the match, they will be set free, but if they win, they will be executed. Great idea for a story. That kind of tale has all sorts of tough moral questions and suspense-building themes. Of course, since it was supposed to be a drama, in the original draft, the POWs win the match and are promptly blown away by Nazi machine guns just before the credits roll. Yay!!!! 

Wait, that’s not exactly the happy ending the suits at Paramount were looking for, is it?

Enter the script doctor! Instead of a “lose and go free or win and die approach”, the suits opted to go with a “win or lose and stay imprisoned storyline”. Huh? Now the game’s outcome is largely pointless since the POWs have no motivation to win or lose. Huston didn’t seem to care (probably wasn’t there anyways), so the suits went with their watered-down version. In my rating system though, any time you cut a scene where Sly Stallone gets executed, you lose points.

Anyways, in the final film product, the game begins like all underdog sports movies begin, with the bad guys playing dirty (ooooh, Nazis being mean, how unexpected!) and taking a huge, seemingly insurmountable lead. At halftime, Sly and some other players start to make their planned escape when one of their teammates (with his eyes welling up with tears), looks into Stallone’s pre-Botoxed face and says “but we can win, we can win!”

If you have ever seen a sports movie, I don’t think you even need for me to tell you how the rest goes, but I will anyways. Sly emerges from the escape hatch, the team goes back on the pitch, and they valiantly fight their way to a 4-4 draw. It’s not a win, but it is a huge moral victory. Blah, blah, blah.

In the post-match confusion, the Ally POWs swap jerseys with fans as they rush onto the field and then they all escape. I always wondered how Pele could so easily pass himself off as one of the Fuhrer’s followers, but if you think about stuff like that while watching Victory then you have clearly missed the point. The point is…

What the hell is the point of this movie? The POWs don’t have it so bad. They aren’t in a Nazi prison camp a la Schindler’s List or A Beautiful Life. In fact, the camp is pretty freaking nice. Everybody is well fed and fully clothed. It looks more like the place I went on my honeymoon than Auschwitz. One guy who tries to escape gets killed, but “HELLO?”, he tried to escape. I don’t care if you’re locked in a Nazi prison camp or Rosie O’Donnell’s pantry, if you try to escape, you get shot (or eaten). Why not just chill by the pool and have a few more strawberry daiquiries?

Because life at the camp is not at all brutal and the game’s outcome is largely meaningless, the story is boring and devoid of suspense. Rick Moranis has more riding on the game in Little Giants than any of the players do in Victory. What the hell ever happened to Rick Moranis anyways? First STO reader to come up with that one wins a prize! (Disclaimer: the prize is getting to have the smug satisfaction of knowing you were the person who informs me about the whereabouts of Rick Moranis). Get looking!

The script isn’t the worst part of the Victory though. It’s the acting.

Pele was perhaps the greatest player ever. His non-speaking moments in the film, such as his trademark bicycle kick, are actually pretty sweet. But every time he opens his mouth, his acting becomes the soccer equivalent of getting nutmegged. Seriously, Pele, don’t act anymore. Ever. Please. (This just in, Pele to take over Ernie Hudson’s role as Winston in Rick Moranis’s two man Off Broadway production of Ghostbusters-inspired spinoff “Tully & Zeddmore: Still Busting Some White Stuff, But It Ain’t Ghosts”).

Also, two of the actors, and only two, have all their lines dubbed (and poorly). One would presume they used dubbing because the actors couldn’t speak a lick of English, but that’s not the case. The actors were Scottish and the producers didn’t think American audiences would be able to understand them. Well, that’s fine, but why the hell didn’t they dub Sylvester Stallone too then?

In fact, now that I think about it, even Pele and the dubbed actors’ performances are more polished than that of Mr. Stallone, the film’s so-called “star”.

Stallone was supposed to be the Allies’ goalkeeper in this football farce. Stallone could pull off acting like a boxer in Rocky because, well, he was a boxer. Apparently Stallone thought he could also “act” like a GK, even though he lacked any background in soccer.

Huston set Stallone up with Gordon Banks, the goalkeeper of England’s winning squad, so Stallone could learn the position. After mere days though, Stallone sent Banks home and told Huston anyone with limbs could play keeper (sorry, Lt. Dan) and he didn’t need any tips on how to look like a top flight goalie. This was not the only mistake Sly would make in his career (have you ever seen Stop or My Mom Will Shoot?), but it was a doozy.

As anyone who has ever seen the movie can attest, Stallone needed more lessons. Alot more. Stallone’s character plays keeper in the movie as if he’s the newest member of Cirque De So Gay. He basically just flips around and throws his body at the ball with no real strategy or purpose and yells alot of homoerotic things like “Come On Boys” and “Do It”. If the picture on your TV went out but you could still hear the audio you might think you were watching gay porn near the end because it just sounds like grunts and Sly calling for his team to “Stick it In!” 

Now, I am not a film fan who hates Stallone just because he’s a crappy actor/writer, egomaniacal producer and overall douchebag. Wait a minute, that is why I hate him. Anyways, there is an urban legend about Stallone and Victory I have heard so many times now I have to assume its true (like the whole Marisa Tomei only won an Academy Award because Jack Palance was senile and announced the wrong name thing). Here’s how it goes:

Towards the end of production, Huston was getting ready to film the movie’s most dramatic moment, the game-tying goal. Stallone, who mind you played the team’s goalie, approached Huston and demanded that his character net the thrilling final shot. The crew, who was composed of mostly non-Americans (i.e., real soccer fans) implored Huston to tell Sly to shut his yapper as it would be patently absurd and ruin the movie if Sly’s keeper went on an eighty yard run sloping through defenders to slot home the winning goal. Huston, torn between keeping his crew on set and his star happy, decided that Stallone would not score the winning goal, but he would insert another scene afterwards where Sly stops a last second penalty attempt to win the game.

It was a good idea. Unfortunately, it was apparently the only one Huston had during the whole shoot.

As for his bad ideas: um, can you tell me who greenlit this thing when Huston came in with the following pitch:

“OK, it’s a soccer movie and it stars Sly Stallone and Michael Caine as…”

STOP! Thank’s for coming in…

That should have been it right there. Stallone and Caine? Not exactly Tango and Cash. What’s next, “John Huston presents Dame Judi Dench and Vin Diesel in Romeo & Juliet”? 

I hate that Caine is in this movie because I usually love me some Caine. Michael Caine is almost always terrific, but he is uncharacteristically terrible in this film. Because the rest of the POWs were played by real soccer players, Caine, who is supposed to be one of the team’s star members, sticks out like a dead male hooker in a church full of school marms (hmm, I bet that sounds good to Caine though). Seriously, it would be like making the Dale Earnhardt movie 3 with Jude Law instead of the inimitable Barry “Freshly Ground” Pepper.

All in all, Victory is not the worst movie about soccer ever made. I’m sure many of you out there love it. As for me, I’m no fan. Maybe someday they can remake it as it was originally drafted and it will be a true drama. One full of sharply written dialogue, compelling acting and precise directing. When that day comes, I’ll give Victory another shot.

Hey, and I bet Rick Moranis is available…