When I was little, before the days of Blockbuster , Warner Village and the big brand companies, there existed a small independent video shop at the bottom of my local high street, the sort of place where the video tapes stunk of cigarettes and booze and an impressionable boy of 8 could rent violent films, no questions asked. It was owned by a reformed sex-offender who, be it purely by accident, had an exceptional collection of cult classics. In truth, all the so-called ‘junk’ that adorned his shelves was cheap to acquire and made the place look full, but nonetheless there were some real gems to be found. The Firm was one such film.
These days the title conjures up thoughts of the glossy Tom Cruise vehicle but you wouldn’t find this film pride of pace in the thrillers section, no this ‘Firm’ would be found at the bottom of the ex-rental bargain bucket, jacket faded with peeling price stickers.
The film centres around the character of Clive ‘Bexy’ Bissell (Gary Oldman), a suited wide-boy estate agent and family man who happens to be a ruthless and charismatic leader of a football hooligan ‘Firm’. Bexy and his ‘Inter City Crew’, so called because of their preferred mode of transport, link up on match days to do battle with rival football ‘Firms’ across the country. The film traces their adventures from one battle to the next as Bexy strives to bring various ‘Firms’ under his control, establishing himself as ‘top boy’ amongst a united army of English hooligans in the run up to the 1988 European Championships in West Germany.
Along the way there are many memorable scenes; the black kid’s afro, Bexy’s childhood bedroom, his doting father, the team photo, the administering of a ‘Chelsea smile’, the rows with his wife and Bexy’s total disregard for the mental and physical scars which his lifestyle causes to those around him.
You may also spot an early appearance by a fresh-faced Steve ‘Eastenders’ McFadden (who can’t stop looking at the camera) in what is probably the worst acting debut since Pele in Escape to Victory. But above all it’s the climactic bar room brawl which makes this worth tracking down, with Bexy's crew exhibiting some of the most cynical swinging of baseball bats ever caught on film (topped only by Pesci’s demise in Casino). Keep an eye out for the brief shot where Bexy unleashes a full-on blow to a girl’s head. Me and my friend had to rewind the tape three times before we could confirm that Bexy had indeed annihilated her face.
Using a Steadicam throughout, director Alan Clarke makes a good attempt at trying to understand the hooligan phenomenon. The film was inspired by the real-life exploits of West Ham’s feared ICF and no one does gritty violence quite like the British (in the same way that no one does a cock scene quite like Ewan McGregor). At times the film can be uncomfortable to watch, particularly for those not versed in the ways of the hooligan. This is where the film will be lost on many audiences, especially females and Americans, who simply do not understand the unique passions that ‘Soccer’ ignites and its deep significance for the disenfranchised proletariat (I often wonder what the Yanks would have made of the hooligan ‘element’ had they stumped up to travel over to U.S.A ‘94).
But in truth it is no different from the L.A gangs killing each other over a colour. The message that I think shines through The Firm is that us men are tribalists; always have been, always will be. And our primeval instincts will always draw us together to fight other ‘tribes’ for territory and respect with the various leaders vying for the position of ‘top boy’. While it was a common occurrence for ancient tribes such as the Celts to fight each other on a regular basis, conflict has largely been removed from the stagnant and vacuous experience of the modern western man, but the need remains, perhaps even stronger than ever.
I only wish we’d had the opportunity to follow ‘The Firm’ to Europe.