This film on British football “hooligans” is never uninteresting but is finally undone by its confusion as to what it’s trying to say. “Green Street Hooligans” offers no sociological analysis for this venerable working-class subculture in which organized groups of fans (called “firms” in cockney parlance) live to rumble with rival firms. Rather, it seeks to honestly portray the demimonde, albeit through the eyes of Elijah Wood’s American journalism student, Matt, who’s so passive that he takes the rap when the Harvard authorities discover his well-connected roommate’s coke (and I refer not to the soft drink).
After Matt gets the Harvard heave-ho he hops across the pond to call on his sister and her Brit husband. A fateful meeting with his brother-in-law’s brother, Pete (Charlie Hunnam), a hooligan with the Green Street Elite (“GSE”) firm which boosts West Ham United, leads to Matt’s first footie match and his first scrap. Soon the diminutive Ivy Leaguer proves his mettle as a tactician and street fighter, becoming a bit of a local legend. In voiceover, Matt tells us that once you discover that you’re not made of glass the urge becomes to see how far you can push the envelope. This is all a bit tired in that by now the “exhilaration of violence” is an idea too familiar to retain any irony.
This story of a sheltered, book-smart boy who is made into a “man” through a brush with street culture would seem a middle-class male fantasy. However, it turns out that our director is a woman, Lexi Alexander. It’s interesting to read that she was once in a firm herself, as her film portrays them as exclusively male bastions. Alexander knows these people well and she’s especially good at portraying the ties that bind the members of this surrogate family. Even those of us who don’t think it’s clever to punch or be punched are made to feel what attracts Matt to the firm: the camaraderie of the tribe, the joy of throwing up a pint at the pub and chanting the GSE fight song.
I enjoyed the often amusing portrayal of the cross-cultural relationships between the Brits and the American. When he’s first learning about feuding football firms, Matt comments that it’s just like the Red Sox vs. the Yankees. The GSE mates are prejudiced against “Yanks” as clueless, useless wankers, and yet there’s a part of Pete that doesn’t begrudge Matt his privileged background. In fact, he takes him under his wing and develops a deep loyalty to him. As Pete, Hunnam gives the film’s most memorable performance, imparting to him dimension and heart.
The main problem here is that while Alexander clearly admires the hooligans’ code (“stand by your mates”), she also wants us to mourn its predictable consequences when there is an inevitable martyrdom towards the end. From there we move swiftly into the realm of the fantastical with an improbable denouement in which Matt, back in the states and now with a bit of steel in his spine, confronts the soulless rich kid who got him booted from Harvard. Alexander’s determination not to judge her characters is admirable, but when it comes to their ethos of violence, the film fails in that it can’t make up its mind whether it is to be a celebration or a cautionary tale.
- Oct 2, 2005