It might seem a difficult task to both glamorize and sentimentalize British soccer hooliganism, but that’s what first-time director Lexi Alexander has managed with “Green Street Hooligans,” in which she manages to capture the visceral energy and violence of the street brawls in which football fanatics engage but also paints the perpetrators in vaguely noble tones, emphasizing the commitment to family and comrades that the phenomenon supposedly embodies. On the one hand, the picture is very successful in depicting, with close-in, hand-held camerawork, the ugliness and exhilaration of the rumbles in which rival “firms,” or team gangs, engage. On the other, the personal story that it plays out against that background has a melodramatic, even sappy, feel. And in the end the second element, unfortunately, wins out.
Elijah Wood, as so often looking rather wan and distant, plays Matt Buckner, a Harvard senior following in his oft-absent father’s journalistic footsteps, who’s expelled from the school after being framed by his roommate, the son of a rich and powerful alum, on a drug-pushing rap to save his own skin. Matt impetuously takes off for London to visit his sister Shannon (Claire Forlani), her British husband Steve Dunham (Marc Warren) and their young son. Almost immediately, though, Matt’s fobbed off on Steve’s hell-raising brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam), whose main interest in life is serving as leader of the Green Street Elite, the “firm” that supports their locality’s football team. Pete, at first grudgingly but with increasingly enthusiasm, initiates Matt into the life of exuberant violence and unquestioned loyalty represented by the group, and the timid Yank unexpectedly finds himself drawn to its energy and camaraderie, even though his sister is horrified by the change in him and Pete’s lieutenant Bovver (Leo Gregory) is obviously disgusted by the preferential treatment being shown to this outsider.
So far, so good. Working closely with cinematographer Alexander Buono and editor Paul Trejo, Alexander generates a genuinely raucous, spur-of-the-moment feel and a visual effect at once gritty and attractively metallic. And Hunnam contributes to the effect with a vivid, virile performance that makes Pete both compelling and scary. Even Wood’s Matt, callow as he is, comes somewhat alive in his presence. (One can hardly avoid feeling an undercurrent of homoeroticism in their relationship, accentuated by the presence of Gregory’s over-the-top Bovver, who acts every inch the jilted lover.) And the picture in these initial stages seems a promising entry in the Seductive-Power-of-the-Dark-Side genre represented by everything from “Wall Street” to “Revenge of the Sith.”
But unfortunately as the plot thickens, “Green Street Hooligans” goes soft and mushy in personal terms even as it ratchets up the violence and decibel level. Pete turns out to be a dedicated coach and teacher at a local school where the kids idolize him. Matt is visited by his concerned dad (Harry Goodman), and they have a long drawn-out, rather sanctimonious heart-to-heart. And an act of treachery of Bovver’s part (connected with the revelation that Matt was a journalism major, and may be planning an expose on the GSE) leads to a Dunham family tragedy involving Steve and the head of another football firm headed by Tommy Hatcher (one-note Geoff Bell), which in turn brings on a big rumble in which not only Pete and Matt but Shannon get involved. It doesn’t help the film that when the two gangs face off in a final confrontation on a garbage-strewn dockside, screaming and thumping their chests before charging at one another, the scene resembles nothing so much as the two packs of apes threatening each other at the water hole in the “Dawn of Man” sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Nor does the explosion of self-sacrifice that follows come off like anything but the sentimental guff it is. (Alexander’s staging fails her here, too: the action in the big final fight isn’t handled as confidently as earlier in the film.)
And as if that weren’t enough, “Green Street Hooligans” tacks on an epilogue back in the States that supposedly depicts what young Matt has learned from his English experience. It’s a smug, predictable finale that, as the Yank says in voice-over, shows how Pete “taught me there are times to stand up and times to walk away.” Unfortunately, the sucker-punch close only reaffirms the fact that Alexander’s movie represents one of those times you, as a potential viewer, should walk away rather than entering the auditorium.