Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) plays football for the North Dallas Bulls, but it's not all working hard and playing hard as there are times he wonders why he's putting his body through this ordeal for a few minutes of glory on the field. Today, the morning after a big game the night before, he has trouble even getting out of bed thanks to his strains and sprains, so lowers himself into a bath and tries to relax, relishing the memory of the previous evening's highlight which for him was an incredible catch followed by a world-beating touchdown. Sure, it was a little flukey, but he scored the points and that's good enough for him...
North Dallas Forty is a cult movie which occupies a curious place in the affections of both sports fans and movie buffs in that it's really the film about American football that is the preferred production on the subject, especially if either you have no interest (or knowledge) of the game, or even if you actively despise the contests and all they stand for. In fact, it appears to have been designed to expose the whole shebang as the corrupt business its detractors actually suspect it to be, but it wasn't negative scene after negative scene because there were flashes throughout of just why these players put themselves through this, that oft-elusive elation of knowing you have won, or even simply scored: as Phil's best friend (country singer Mac Davis) observes, if they have to be whores they may as well be the best.
Helping to achieve this difficult tone immeasurably was an excellent script (taken from a semi-autobiographical novel) littered with profane dialogue and hilarious turns of phrase, which added to the contributions of a very capable cast helped to paper over the cracks of a story that tended towards the schematic, and would have come across as such if it was not so dedicated to undercutting the expectations of your average sporting triumph flick where you just know the proceedings will end on a freeze frame of the winning team our hero plays for punching the air mid-victory celebration. In this case, you watch it unsure of quite how far the team will get when there are so many factors both of their own making and others' that could get in the way.
Nolte's Phil encapsulated that world-weariness with his career, which he is beginning to get too old and out of shape for, with a sharp wit and genuine love of the highs a great win will offer. But this had something to say about male aggression, as here that is encouraged in the arena whereas normally in society it is frowned upon, and that is because left unchecked they will both lead to the same result: pain. We see the coaches and the bosses firing up the players to the point where they will be capable of violent crime, which is excused on the field since there's a catharsis for those watching in seeing these men bare their teeth and really launch themselves at one another, but becomes more problematic when the participants cannot leave that behind in the game.
The most visible example of that was Bo Svenson's towering Jo Bob who we are introduced to when he bursts into Phil's bathroom with two friends and blasts a shotgun at the ceiling, all to get him to accompany them hunting; very amusing, but when at the party that night to celebrate the team's close vicinity to winning the championship - just one game to go - he nearly rapes a woman, Charlotte (Dayle Haddon), as he won't take no for an answer and being the biggest guy there expects to get his way. Phil saves her after a fashion, and they become lovers themselves, though truth be told this is the weakest part of the film with Haddon's ice queen demeanour difficult to warm to; better is the briefly seen affair he is having with one of his bosses' fiancées (Savannah Smith). But it's that pain which stays with you, all these burly men gingerly making their way across the screen because they need to be pumped full of painkillers to keep going, every one exploited to line the pockets of the self-satisfied company men. If this wasn't so funny, it would be a harrowing tragedy. Music by John Scott.