Neil Young’s Film Lounge – the Football Factory

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE FOOTBALL FACTORY

6/10

UK 2004 : Nick LOVE : 90 mins

London, 2003. Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer) is a middle-ranking member of a gang of hooligans united by their love of: (in no particular order) Chelsea FC; punch-ups with rival fans; and getting ‘off their heads’ on drink/drugs. With his 30th birthday just around the corner, the not-too-bright Tommy senses he is approaching a decisive crossroads in his life: will he ‘grow out’ of and turn away from his violent activities, or embrace them further?

The Football Factory is based on the novel of the same title by John King, which nestles on many booksellers’ shelves alongside tell-all ruck-a-thons by real-life football hooligans. But King doesn’t really belong such company – ┬áhe was named by no less an eminence than John Bayley (former Oxford Professor of Literature; played by Jim Broadbent in Iris) as among the best of Britain’s younger novelists.

A movie intended for a mass audience, Love’s adaptation of The Football Factory necessarily loses much of King’s subtlety – the racism of the football hooligan world is noticeably soft-pedalled; some of the storytelling is a little sloppy; much of the characterisation and plotting (including the ‘tragic’ climax) is too predictable. But there’s a more disturbing problem: so slick is the film’s surface that many viewers will be content to revel in its bursts of kinetic brutishness. After one pre-release screening, a young audience-member emerged with the enthusiastic comment that “You will want to put on your Stone Island jumper and kick the f*ck out of somebody.”

As a one-line movie review, this hardly rivals the Pope’s hastily-retracted “It is as it was” verdict on Mel Gibson’s Jesus H Christ – and the film’s producers are hardly likely to put it on their posters, given the current pre-Euro 2004 hysteria about football violence. But tagline they did choose (“This is England’s worst nightmare. Enjoy it”) does seem blatantly intended to lure in the Tommy Johnsons of this world rather than the John Bayleys. In Nick Love’s own words, “It is unasahamedly aimed at the people it is about – men who do not want to grow up.”

Despite these ill-advised statements, there’s still plenty of John King in The Football Factory, for anyone with the patience (and inclination) to look beyond its hyped-up, Trainspotting/GoodFellas/Lock-Stock direction. The film repeatedly and emphatically undercuts both Tommy and the louts he admires, such as 40-something “hard-man” Billy Bright (Frank Harper as a bulky, North-London cross between De Niro and Pesci). If nothing else, Tommy’s boorish, sub-Clockwork-Orange voice-over makes him pretty difficult to warm to: “the next best thing to violence is sex,” he proclaims at one point.

And he turns out to be spectacularly unsuccessful in that department, his insecurities compounded by his lack of “inches” downstairs. As in Love’s debut, Goodbye Charlie Bright, there’s a latent but distinct homoerotic subtext detectable at several points – women generally don’t figure very strongly in this psychotically masculine environment, and there’s much celebration when when Tommy’s best mate Rod (Neil Maskell) abandons his (caricature) middle-class girlfriend to return to the welcoming bosom of his male pals. And Love is very careful to emphasise that these men aren’t really “football fans” at all – at no stage do either the characters or the audience get to see an actual professional game.

“Was it worth it?” (or rather “Woz i’ worf i’?”) Tommy asks himself at both the beginning of the film and the end. “Course it fuckin’ woz!” he answers, and Love seems to endorse Tommy’s decision by closing with a chirpy photo-gallery round-up of the various characters’ fates. On closer reflection, however, many viewers will decide that Tommy is simply retreating further into his fantasy-land of delusion and self-justification, and that his abrasively repellent hooliganism wasn’t “worth it” at all. Of course, (too) many other viewers – especially those underage lads who got their hands on the ubuquitous 5 pirated DVDs – won’t have time to reflect at all. They’ll be too busy pulling on their Stone Island jumpers and getting ready to kick the f*ck out of somebody.

19th May, 2004
(seen 11th May : Odeon, Gate, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)

by Neil Young