The Firm/Elephant (1988/1989)

“We’re going to Europe to do the Europeans.”

The Vandals would have been proud to own the collection of homemade weapons used by obsessed football fan Bex Bissell (Gary Oldman) in The Firm–a British television film directed by Alan Clarke. Bissell, a married man with a small child, sells homes for a living, but his real life is football. Bissell heads the ICC–a “firm” or a club of violent football fans, and when the British team is scheduled to head to Europe for the 1988 world cup championship, Bissell decides that his firm and a rival firm should join forces and go to Europe presenting a united front. Naturally Bissell elects himself as the head of the combined team, but the rival Buccaneers challenge Bissell’s idea, and a brutal feud begins.

This is an incredible role for Gary Oldman–an actor who seems to slip his own skin with every new role. Here, he’s unrecognizable as the violent, explosive, obsessed Bissell. He intimidates his men into carrying out his commands–even when some of those plans are insanely destructive. And when those men–some of whom have nice, respectable middle-class lives–show a glimpse of a qualm, Bissell turns on his own men with rapid violence until all dissent is squashed. Sue (Lesley Manville), Bissell’s wife, is ready to turn a blind eye to a certain amount of Firm activity, but she draws the line when the feud with the Buccaneers spirals out of control and violence enters their home. Bissell tells his wife that he can’t give up the ICC and explains, “I need the buzz.” Sue’s stand just sends Bissell back to his parents’ home. Bissell’s father is an avid supporter and cheerleader of Bissell’s activities and Bissell’s childhood bedroom is a shrine to his football heroes.

In many ways, The Firm could be seen as an allegory of dictatorship–although the film was not designed with that purpose in mind. Bissell, however, is a dictator when it comes to the ICC whose motto is “We come in peace, we leave you in pieces.” Bissell’s activities have escalated beyond the normal fan and his hobby–to seriously obsessed, pathological violence. Director Alan Clarke does not show either the ICC or the Buccaneers in action as football fans (there’s a glimpse of an amateur match and one packed stadium). Instead the emphasis is on the aggression, the obsession, and the bizarre cult these two clubs establish around male relationships. Some of the best scenes occur when Bissell confronts the other firm, and a verbal insult match takes place (“with your track record, you need an A-Z to find a bog”).

The second film on the disc Elephant is a let-down. The film recreates 18 real-life assassinations that took place in Northern Ireland. There’s a message here, but the endless slaughter gets to the viewer (me) rapidly. But if you’re a fan of Oldman, or if you’ve heard about the legendary violence of British football fans and are curious to know more, then The Firm is recommended.

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