There has been one successful remake of an Alan Clarke film, Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film “Elephant.” Transporting the sectarian killings of Northern Ireland to high-school slayings in America was a bold and natural move. Clarke’s most nihilistic film featured neither dialogue nor star, thus removing the tricky comparison of performance that allowed Van Sant’s feature to stand on its own chilling merits.
By tackling Clarke’s controversial and much admired 1988 film “The Firm,” director Nick Love has saddled himself with two immense problems; Al Ashton’s razor sharp script and Gary Oldman’s virtuoso turn (arguably his best) as estate agent and football hooligan Bex. Love, no slouch himself, smartly promotes Dom, a minor character from the original, to become the focal point of his film, partly eliminating the Oldman conundrum.
Love knows that fans of the original will be clambering to see his vision of Bex, so he begins his tale of casual football gangs in the 1980s with Paul Anderson’s incarnation strutting between his des-res and the squalid Lord Nelson pub. In between, we see the inner city degradation of London, a city then on the verge of a property boom but still far from prosperous. It’s an exhilarating start, Love’s camera perfectly capturing the working class swagger of Bex as he returns to his roots to the tune of “Tainted Love.”
And that’s what “The Firm” is about, tainted love: Bex and his firm of hooligans twisted devotion to football through violence, young wannabe Dom’s infatuation with Bex, and Dom’s parents over-indulgence of their son. Through Dom, played by a young Danny Dyer look-alike Calum McNab, Love retreads one of his favourite themes, the desire to belong and to escape the drudgery of everyday life.
This escape takes many forms for Dom, break dancing, weed, and getting leathered in the brilliantly named ‘Lips’ nightclub. ‘Lips’ is like dancing inside a neon Rubik’s Cube, the shiny face of Thatcher’s Friday night millionaires. After a badly misjudged altercation with Bex in the club, Dom and his young friend Terry have to pay homage at Bex’s feet in The Lord Nelson. Here, Love is particularly terrific at recreating the familiar fear of walking into an unknown boozer. Impressed with Dom, Bex casts his spell and the impressionable lad soon trades in his rolled up lilo for a pair of box fresh Adidas and a couple of bruises, ditching Terry along the way.
“The Firm’s” strengths come into particular focus when Love creates his own scenes rather than re-staging those of the original. The moments between Dom and his parents are genuinely funny and touching and, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” Dom will realise sooner or later that there’s no place like home. In another new scene, Love turns the screw on Dom when Trigger, an older leader of the firm, roundly humiliates him in front of the entire pub. Dom looks for backup, but is left hanging in the cigarette smoke.
When familiar scenes from the original surface they are functional enough, but still leave you wishing for Clarke’s movie. The hooligan summit between the three top firms has none of the rapid-fire wit or energy of Clarke’s film and Dom’s initiation falls flat because the rest of the firm’s characters are not sufficiently drawn to make us believe their camaraderie. Other than Trigger, no one trades any real banter with Anderson’s Bex. Gary Oldman, by comparison, seemed all the more powerful, because he dominated other powerful figures.
Relegation of Bex to a supporting makes the most shocking scene from the original redundant in Love’s film. Love’s film doesn’t need it, and you can’t help feeling that his “Firm” would be a better movie had it dared to be more original.
The film retains Clarke’s central message, that football violence has nothing to do with the sport, by deliberately not showing any match footage and the fight scenes portrayed as both ridiculous and terrifying. The firm’s fights against other football gangs are a pointless pursuit that end in minutes, to fuel the bullsh*t touted by grown men in tennis gear on the long train journeys back to London.
Love has a terrific eye for detail (you’ll wish you hadn’t thrown away that Sergio Tacchini tracksuit) and a gift for dialogue. He cleverly throws in the development of contemporary Cockney slang that is used to such wonderful vulgar effect in “The Football Factory” and “The Business.” As a result “The Firm” has a slower delivery, a different pace than those previous movies but seems to be missing that extra man in midfield. Perhaps if he’d stuck Danny Dyer on as sub Love would have won in extra time.