Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Firm (2009) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
The grim images of crowd violence at the recent Carling Cup tie between West Ham and Millwall were a reminder that social ills like football hooliganism are far from dead and buried – and make the release of Love’s take on the darkest days of Saturday afternoon ‘meets’ sadly timely.
I’ll admit to coming to this film with some trepidation. While undoubtedly a gifted cinematic storyteller, Love has sometimes been guilty of buying into the ‘geezer chic’ lifestyle he depicts (most notably in his calling card movie The Business). His last film, Outlaw, received decidedly mixed reviews, with some critics accusing it of glorifying vigilantism.
The problem of recreating the visceral adrenalin rush of any violence, and mob violence in particular, without making it seem glamorous and exciting, is an age-old one and many directors have fallen into the trap. Plus there’s a worrying trend in some accounts of (and commentary on) soccer violence to paint the perpetrators as working-class heroes asserting a proud rebellious streak.
Added to that is the fact that Love is, for the first time, doing a remake – of one of the most powerful and critically-acclaimed television films of all time, directed by the legendary Alan Clarke (Scum, Made In Britain et al) and starring a young Gary Oldman in one of his breakthrough roles.
I was expecting a stylish but empty retread that added nothing to the original – so it’s a pleasure to admit I was completely wrong. The Firm is a warm and funny, though darkly-tinged, tale of a boy’s coming of age and the perils of picking charismatic but dangerous figures as your role models for adulthood.
It makes a radical departure from the original by focusing on one of the supporting characters. Dom (Calum MacNab) is a bright but bored lad living on a run-down estate. His life revolves around dodging work as his dad’s apprentice, breakdancing in the underpasses (this is the Eighties, remember – don’t tell me you didn’t try it at least once!) and scoring cheap dope with his mate Terry (Billy Seymour).
The estate is dominated by Bex (Paul Anderson) – a prosperous estate agent by day who is also the leader of the local hooligan ‘firm’. When Terry insults Bex at a local nightclub (and gets summary justice by headbutt dispensed on him) Bex declares both boys ‘marked’ - and Dom plucks up the courage to visit Bex’s local and apologise in person.
Impressed, Bex takes Dom under his wing, inviting him to join his five-a-side team and join the firm in their next outing. After a gruesome initiation (Dom’s main appearance in the original) he’s accepted by Bex’s cohorts – though he’s constantly the butt of jokes from the well-off, well nasty Trigger (Doug Allen), Bex’s chief lieutenant.
Dom feels a sense of belonging and empowerment missing from life with his aimless mates and loving but unambitious parents (Eddie Webber and Camille Coduri). He hangs around with the firm more and more, aping Bex’s obsession with ‘looking right’ to a ludicrous degree; the film certainly bigs up a few well-known leisurewear and trainer manufacturers, though they may not regard the sporting of their wares by characters like these as ideal publicity.
But the lifestyle isn’t all clothes shopping and hanging out - the firm’s raison d’etre is havin’ a ruck and Bex is obsessed with them being the top dogs. At a summit meeting with rival firms, Bex and his arch-enemy The Yeti (Daniel Mays) agree that the winners of a series of ‘meets’ can lead the English hoolie contingent to the 1988 European Championships.
A day trip to Portsmouth for a clash with the ‘farmers’ gives Dom his first taste of orchestrated aggro, but a confrontation with the Yeti’s mob ends in disaster when they arrive tooled-up and easily see off their unarmed opponents.
Bex becomes obsessed with revenge and is determined to fight fire with fire next time. Alarmed at the escalation of violence, Dom decides he wants out – but Bex has other ideas...
This is definitely not a glorification of the hooligan’s life (and, to be fair, neither was Love’s similarly-themed The Football Factory). The rucks have a grim, handheld intimacy which shows how clumsy, ugly and bloody terrifying a mass brawl can be. The audience feels just as trapped as Dom and realises just as quickly that pursuing a life like this can have only one conclusion. And it shares the original’s strong message that his has nothing to do with genuinely loving football or supporting a team. The clubs that the firms pledge their allegiance to are a peripheral, almost irrelevant presence – it’s really all about blind allegiance to the nastiest dog in the pack and surrendering to mindless hatred.
But the film is as much about the day-to-day life of Dom and the rest of the estate. The humour and poignancy Love finds in everyday conversations and minor problems recall his acclaimed debut Goodbye Charlie Bright. It’s obvious that the warmth and intimacy of Dom;’s family life is preferable to the testosterone-fuelled world of Bex and the firm, but gar from obvious that Dom will realise this in time.
The performances are excellent. Both leads are relatively unknown, but MacNab brilliantly conveys the naivety and confusion behind Dom’s tough, street-smart exterior. Anderson wisely refrains from trying to do an impression of Gary Oldman but he captures Bex’s motormouth charisma and his obsession with status of whatever kind, as well as his lightning shifts from respectable local boy made good to devil in sports casual.
Allen and Mays put in convincing turns as his adjutant and nemesis respectively and Webber and Coduri are a joy as his over-protective mum and salt of the earth dad; in just a few scenes they paint as genuine a picture of a genuinely happy couple as I’ve seen in a long time.
The period detail is lovingly sketched in (Mad Lizzie and early Fools And Horses on the telly, London on the brink of a housing boom) and there’s a very ‘I heart the Eighties’ soundtrack. It doesn’t have the original’s socio-political dimension (where Bex’s obsession with style and his tendency for excess in all areas definitely seemed to me a comment on the Thatcher era) and there are some scenes which pander to the lad mag audience – an episode where Dom is fixed up with a local girl who instantly disrobes, to reveal the body of a lingerie model, is one of the film’s few false notes.
But all in all, this is a worthwhile film that, like Quadrophenia or Trainspotting, captures the desperate need to belong that strikes you when you’re young – and the desperate need to escape when what you decide to belong to not only offers no answers but creates more problems.
It’s a real success and a real move forward for Love, as both writer and director. I think Alan Clarke and the original writer Al Hunter Ashton (both sadly no longer with us) would be impressed with the way he’s examined and expanded on their story. And there’s not much higher praise than that.Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2009