The Firm (1989) Review: The Gary Oldman soccer hooligan movie that started it all
The Firm (1989)
The popularity of films on soccer hooliganism is hard to measure by traditional methods. Hooligan movies rarely show outside of UK cinemas, box office receipts are minuscule by Hollywood standards, and A-list stars seldom cast.
But a quick glance at Youtube will tell that there is an audience – a large one – for films on the violent underworld of soccer fandom.
Clips from such films as The Football Factory (2004) and Green Street (2005) have garnered hundreds of thousands of views, while footage of actual hooligan violence is celebrated and debated on message boards the world over. Danny Dyer, of the (in)famous Cockney accent and starring role as Tommy Johnson in The Football Factory, even turned his character’s popularity into a career of hosting popular documentaries on real football hooliganism, chiefly The Real Football Factories and The Real Football Factories International.
All of these, however, owe their existence to a humble film of immaculate quality. This film is The Firm.
Premiering on BBC in 1989 as a 70-minute television special, The Firm was the last movie from Alan Clarke, the controversial director of works on British prison conditions (Scum, 1977) and violence in Northern Ireland (Elephant, 1989).
It tells the story of Clive “Bex”/”Bexy” Bissel and his life amongst friends and rivals while leading a “firm,” an organized gang associated with a specific football club and dedicated to antagonizing similar groups from other clubs. Loosely based on the activities of the notorious Inter City Firm of West Ham United in the 1970s and 1980s, “The Firm” was the first major work dedicated to depicting the lifestyle of the “hooligan.” And it opened (or kicked in) the door for all that followed.
The film is tight and sparse, with little in the way of special effects. There is no musical score, apart from a curious playing of Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” during the opening credits. Perhaps surprisingly for a film about hooligans, it is more talk than action, the final wild climax aside.
Bexy’s crew of cockneys are not sympathetic characters, despite instances of charm and wit; Clarke’s England-under-Thatcher is a dreary place full of rude, rough and angry young men. The film’s style fits its protagonists: quick but rough, with little in the way of grandeur.
Most strikingly, there is no actual soccer: no matches (outside a pick-up game in a nearby park), no chants, not even fans of rival clubs. The absence of these tells the story: the events of the pitch have very little to do with what these hooligans are about. “The Buzz,” as Bexy describes the adrenaline and enjoyment procured from his delinquency, drives all.
Bexy is played by Gary Oldman, in a role many see as one of the actor’s best. A real estate agent living in a typical row house in a the Borough of Anywhere-ham, London, UK, Bexy maintains a shrine to West Ham United FC in a walk-in closet and practices clubbing his pillow to death before kissing his child on the cheek. As with many films on the United Kingdom in the ‘80s, Bexy is presented a youngish male who finds his own life confining and goes to extreme lengths to find meaning and excitement.
Yet, what separates this character from the many it inspired is the relative comfort of Bexy’s condition. He is not a council estate “chav,” nor is he the son of a troubled home; indeed, his father is featured in the film enthusiastically supporting his son’s lifestyle, even commenting on how “soft” his boys are for being “tooled up” with weapons. There is no partying, no casual drug use, no loose women; he is not interested in crime with soccer partisanship as an entryway therein. He is middle-aged, employed, married and with a child. He simply likes the Buzz.
This is where “The Firm” stands out from its later peers: it is not a Grecian tragedy on the seduction and treachery of the criminal lifestyle, but instead a study of the transgressive impulses that lurk among those who are supposed to be content with the average. Boredom, a sense of purpose, and a chance to be top boy at something, even something as self-destructive as hooliganism: these are the driving forces behind the actions of Bexy, “Yeti,” “Oboe,” “Trigg,” “Aitch” and all the other characters in the eponymous firm.
For these men, hedonism doesn’t pull so much as ennui pushes.
The most powerful moment of the film, interestingly, comes after the tragic climax. Without giving too much away, it all ends with the film’s factions drunk, loud and united under a common flag: that of England, as they are ready to take on the hooligans of continental Europe. The events and tragedies of the film prior are twisted into legend and the inspiration for a bastardized form Bexy’s dream: a truly national firm, one that rises above the local rivalries he faces (and revels in) to lead England into the Continent.
It doesn’t really matter what flag they drink under, though. Some people just need the rush.