Elijah Wood is not a believable tough guy.
Probably this comes as no great revelation to you. There's a reason that the Lord of the Rings video games tend to focus on Aragorn, Legolas and Gandalf -- Wood's Frodo is a wuss, and everybody knows it. So any movie that's about his discovering his inner Iron John is by definition going to be a tough sell. Edward Norton pulled it off in Fight Club, as did Eric Bana in Hulk, because as nerdy as those guys may look, they're totally buff under their shirts and multidimensional as actors. But Wood? It was a stretch watching him wield that glowing sword, and now director Lexi Alexander wants us to believe that he can become . . . a soccer thug. You can stop laughing now. Really, that's the premise of Green Street Hooligans.
About to graduate from Harvard, Matt (Wood) finds his plans abruptly derailed when drugs are found in his dorm room. They belong to his wealthy roommate, who offers Matt a fat envelope of cash to stay quiet, plus the promise of future employment from his well-connected family. Matt seems to be in a perennially bad mood anyway because of some issues with an absent father, so he takes the bribe and flies to England, where his sister Shannon (Claire Forlani) lives with her husband Steve (Marc Warren) and newborn son. In an accident of timing, Matt shows up on the night Steve has planned a romantic date, and so to get him out of the house, Steve pawns Matt off on his loutish brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam), a football thug (the movie admonishes Matt several times not to call it "soccer," so we'll comply here, too) who's none too happy about having to baby-sit a girly Yank. But Matt refuses to go away, so Pete brings him to the local pub, then a football match, and finally, almost inadvertently, to a brawl.
Pete, it turns out, is head of a "firm" -- an unofficial organization of team supporters, with a goal of making other firms look bad, which usually means challenging them to fights. Pete insists this isn't the same thing as a gang, deriding gangs as the sort of people who do drive-by shootings rather than getting their hands dirty. The most important rule of the firm is to stand your ground and never back away from a fight. The next most important rule is to hate journalists, because they're all biased and make the firms look bad. Matt was a journalism major at Harvard, but he doesn't tell Pete that. He's too busy getting caught up in the joy of hitting people. We're expected to believe that he has so much pent-up frustration that when he finally gets to let loose, he's a superior fighter who can take down three thugs who've been doing this their whole lives. The script references The Karate Kid in the hope that'll make things more believable. Nope: Ralph Macchio could get away with it because he was playing a high-schooler who wasn't fully grown yet. Wood is an adult, and a smallish, baby-faced one at that.
Hunnam first got the attention of moviegoers worldwide as the star of Nicholas Nickleby, in which he played the stunningly boring lead, surrounded by a host of more interesting actors. He's no longer wooden here, but his cockney accent is extremely dubious; we're talking Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins dubious. Internet research reveals that he is indeed English and, therefore, has no excuse.
While it's enjoyable to learn the ins and outs of English football violence, the film isn't really clear on its tone. In some scenes, it feels like a traditional fighting movie like Hard Times, but then other moments seem to be grasping at social relevance in the vein of Boyz N the Hood. The theme of a dull, white-bread protagonist learning how to feel alive through brawling is most analogous to Fight Club, but none of that film's irony or postmodernism makes it here.
The problem in every case is that Matt is ultimately a jerk. Yes, he learns how to be a tougher man who stands up for himself, but only after he's ruined everyone else's life in the process, and been partially responsible for at least one death. The impression left is that director Alexander doesn't seem to recognize this, or if she does, she's deliberately playing it down. The world of football riots seems rife with potential for the big screen, but Green Street Hooligans only periodically rises to it.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.