Nick Nolte is one of those guys who seems to have been around forever. Always delivering solid performances, but never really standing out as one of the greats of his generation, or even really carrying many movies as a lead. When I look at his credits in IMDB, there are things like 48 Hours and its sequel, and the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear. And even though he shares top billing on both of those movies, Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro are both way more memorable for their parts in those movies than Nolte. He’s a great enough actor that his lack of huge leading roles confuses me. It confuses me even more, now that I’ve seen how well he can deliver when an entire movie rests on his shoulders. An entire movie, like North Dallas Forty.
As Phillip Elliot, Nick Nolte is an aging footballer, still able to make a difference on the field, but not without the help of some serious, and regular pain killing injections. “Better football through chemistry” he calls it. He’s obviously disillusioned with the game and sees it as purely a job, there’s no great love for what happens on the field, or the partying and plentiful tail off the field. He clashes with his coach (Charles Durning) and seems to have no regard for any of his teammates, except for quarterback, and old friend, Seth (Mac Davis).
His personal life is in a little better shape, but not much. His girlfriend, Charlotte (Dayle Haddon) has even less interest in the game than Phillip, and sees him as more than a football player. But that relationship is exactly what his coach and other unhappy superiors know they can exploit when they want Elliot to fall in line.
When I wrote about Jubal, I mentioned Ernest Borgnine, Sean Connery and Robert Duvall are all men who seemingly came out of the womb middle aged. Now I have to ad Nolte to that list. Watching North Dallas Forty, I realised that this is probably the youngest I’ve ever seen him, and even here he’s the old guy, on the verge of retirement from football. In the 00s and beyond, Nolte has been the gravel voiced old timer who’s been there and done that. In the 80s and 90s, he was the no bullshit, upper middle aged guy who was teamed up with some young punk, a-la 48 Hours, or when Gary Busey stole the Nolte vibe for Point Break.
North Dallas Forty isn’t just another football movie. It’s up there as one of the best football movies. And even more impressive is that it does this with hardly any scenes on the field. This movie is much more concerned with who these guys are off the field, how the game affects the rest of their lives and how they get by when they’re out of their element… Which seems to be almost everywhere that isn’t the football field. A football movie that doesn’t all come down to one big play in one big game really was a great surprise for me.
The other great surprise was seeing the name Ted Kotcheff appear as the director. A year ago, I wouldn’t have recognised his name. But a year ago, I hadn’t seen Wake in Fright. And just like how that movie made me rethink what a horror movie can be, Kotcheff has made me realise football, and sports movies in general, don’t have to follow the same old formula we’ve all seen dozens of times. After North Dallas Forty, Kotcheff is definitely in my list of film makers names to look for.