Retro Rental: ‘Playing For Keeps,’ and Playing Soccer for ‘Victory’
[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you The Retro Rental, an older film on disc or download that connects with the here-and-now ...]
I watched the romantic comedy 'Playing for Keeps' a while ago, starring Gerard Butler as an ex-soccer star adrift professionally and romantically, and the less said about that, the better. Soccer is a tough sport to capture on-screen, and an even tougher one to make Americans care about in large numbers -- I know that many of my friends care about the sport with a true fervor, to be sure, but they're islands in a sea of NFL games and NBA hubub, and the eternal MLB schedule.
And yet, anyone good can make a good movie out of anything. And so it was that 'Playing for Keeps,' when my mind wandered (which was often) sent me back to my memories of 1981's 'Victory,' which at the time found a nifty solution to two problems soccer poses to a film maker: How do you train actors to play an amazingly tough game, and how do you a make a tough, low-scoring game exciting?
Of course, it didn't hurt that the film maker making 'Victory' was John Huston, the master behind everything from 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre' to 'Prizzi's Honor.' Huston was an old pro even when he was young, and 'Victory,' one of the final films he made before his death in 1987, benefits from every bit of his skill and showmanship. First, Huston didn't hire actors who could kinda-sorta play soccer; he hired some actors (Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone) and hired even more soccer players -- greats like Pelé, Bobby Moore and others -- to act. Secondly, Huston got around the tendency to see soccer as "dull" by combining the starting gun... with real guns.
'Victory' takes place in WWII, behind enemy lines, where a soccer-loving group of POW's, led by Caine, start playing for fun, and soccer-minded German officer Max von Sydow proposes a friendly match with the German guards and officers. That friendly match soon gets turned into a potential spectacle, as the German high command's media-management-minded propagandists up the stakes proposing a match between the Allied team -- made up, at Caine's accented insistence, of both officers and enlisted men -- and the German national team.
The British prisoners -- all stiff-upper lip officers and hearty enlisted types -- recognize that the game in Paris represents their best possible chance to escape -- out of the camp, in a big city, with plenty of sideshow to distract the Nazis. It is, to paraphrase 'Argo,' the best bad plan the allied POW's have got.
And while the team may have slightly anachronistic hair in places -- unless POW's during the '40s had majestic feathered tresses like the Bee Gees -- the soccer action is not only choreographed by Pelé, it's shot by a superb team of camera people and techs. Caine, Stallone (who winds up, yes, playing goalie despite his initial brute American misunderstanding of socc -- excuse me, 'football') and von Sydow are all as eminently watchable as ever. At the time, the film was described as a cross between 'The Longest Yard' and 'The Great Escape,' and if that hybrid lacks the power of either, it comes closer to either of those classics than not. 'Playing for Keeps' uses soccer as a device and a distraction; 'Victory' may not be great cinema, but its mix of tense thrills and derring-do escapes plus top-notch soccer action makes it a higher-scoring proposition than you might think.
'Victory' is available on DVD Amazon Prime.