“Jesus, I was expecting cornflakes and a quick wank.”
“Are you gonna sit in some poxy office with a cunt for a boss telling you what to do as you count your pennies trying to make ends meet in a country that’s sinking into strikes and wars and at the end of the day you go home to your cosy little flat in ‘nowheresville’ and pull your IKEA curtains shut to hide from the big bad world and pretend it’s not happening? Or are you gonna stand up and be counted, make a difference and feel the rush? Just for once say “fuck it”. I’m coiled up like a spring and I’m ready to burst and wanking ain’t doing it anymore. I need violence to make me feel I’m still alive. I know what I’d rather do, mate. Tottenham away. Love it!”
Based on the cult novel by John King, the British film The Football Factory is an excellent energetic look at soccer hooliganism through the eyes of one of those hooligans. Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer) is one of a group of avid Chelsea fans–so avid, in fact, that they love to stomp on those who support other football teams.
The film opens with a statement from Tommy: “I’m just another bored male, approaching 30 in a dead end job who lives for the weekends. Casual sex, watered-down lager, heavily cut drugs. And occasionally kicking fuck out of someone.” And this just about sums it up for Tommy. His life is going nowhere. He works, incongruously, at a florist with fellow football thug, psychotic racist Billy Bright (Frank Harper)–an unpredictable, brutish disciple of club boss and ringleader, Harris (Tony Denham).
The Chelsea “firm” boss Harris maintains a strict hierarchy, and Tommy lands somewhere underneath Bright and Harris but considerably above Zeberdee (Roland Manookian) who’s the butt of many jokes and sporadically cruel treatment. There’s the implicit idea that when the Firm doesn’t have rival fans to beat up and smack the snot out of, they aggress on one another. One marvelous scene depicts Zeberdee at the receiving end of Bright’s cruelty and then he moves on down the line to pick on some children standing in a bus shelter.
The film’s crescendo arrives when Chelsea is set to play against traditional rival Milwall in a league cup game. Chelsea firm thugs pump up in anticipation of the moment; this is, after all, what they live for. There are some comic moments–Zeberdee is the butt of practical jokes, and in one marvelous segment, a middle class court clerk strikes up a relationship with Tommy’s friend Rod (Neil Maskell). Tommy is disgusted with Rod and his imminent conversion to domesticity, but he fails to take into account Rod’s stubborn insistence that he’s a “male”–as if being male and a football fan are synonymous. Other segments include a racist taxi driver whose ongoing comments about the country going to hell largely fall on the deaf ears of his passengers.
The film also has its serious moments. Tommy’s grandfather (Dudley Sutton) is immigrating to Australia–leaving behind an England he no longer understands. A WWII veteran, he cannot grasp his grandson’s attraction to the violence that occurs under the auspices of sporting enthusiasm. As the film continues, Tommy is haunted by nightmares of a bandaged ghost, and while he begins to predict his own doom, he’s unable to take the advice of friends and walk away from the violence.
Many reviews slam the film for its glorification of violence. And true, if you don’t want to see thuggery unleashed and positively delighted in, then this is not a film for you. Beautifully photographed and with a style reminiscent of Guy Ritchie–but not as gimmicky, the plot moves from senseless violence to senseless violence. But since this is a film about football hooliganism, should one expect anything less? British football fans (well the violent ones at least) have earned a terrible reputation both at home and abroad for their fervor and out-of-control violence. If you’ve ever been close to these scenes of destruction, the best way I can describe it is watching the Vandal hordes unleashed. The Football Factory recreates this perfectly.
Several scenes of gathering Firm members appear at times as grainy footage as if to say that yes, Britain’s CCTV may capture the images on film, but the state is powerless to stop the violence. And in Britain–like it or not–football hooliganism has reached the level of being a tradition. Watching football matches with their sometimes violent confrontations as one player gets in the face of another and shouts and screams, it seems as though the violent fans are taking the battle out of the playing field and continuing it to its inevitable conclusion in the streets. Senseless violence, yes, there’s plenty of that in The Football Factory–a film whose name implies that violent fans are somehow created by the sport itself. But director Nick Love places a mirror to this subculture and in creating a reflection he shows why fans engage in this behaviour, what they get out of it, and yes, he even shows some of the negative consequences. In the process there are times when he makes it look fun, but once again Love simply reflects the social conditions of a phenomenon that to outsiders seems nothing short of insane.