Although its portrayal of professional American football as a drug-addled, morally dubious free-for-all was undoubtedly jacked up for dramatic effect, North Dallas Forty feels credible from start to finish, and it works equally well as a joke machine and a serious story. Based on a tell-all book by former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent, the picture depicts the odyssey of Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), a wide receiver for the fictional team the North Dallas Bulls. Aging out of his prime and suffering the repercussions of numerous injuries, Phil’s a smart-ass who makes occasional game-winning catches and relies heavily on his close friendship with good-ol’-boy quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis). Yet Phil clashes with the Bulls’ autocratic coach, B.A. Strothers (G.D. Spradlin), who expects complete loyalty and rigorous research from his players. As Phil’s position on the team becomes more and more tenuous—he spends a lot of time on the bench—Phil starts to envision a day when football is no longer the most important thing in his life. Helping to motivate this transition are a romance with sexy bluebood Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon) and the realization that Bulls owner Conrad Hunter (Steve Forrest) is willing to risk players’ health for a winning season.
Screen time in North Dallas Fortty is divided fairly evenly between sports rituals (games, locker-room conferences, practices) and the other parts of Phil’s life. These worlds bleed into each other, so a sense is conveyed that pro players are modern gladiators who rely on dope to get through physically demanding games and then party hard to release tension. Woven into the picture is a melancholy thread of bold men watching their good years slip into the rearview mirror. Furthermore, players lament how middle managers like Emmett Hunter (Dabney Coleman) have replaced old-fashioned values of dignity and sportsmanship with profit-driven agendas. One suspects that the author of the source material stretched things a bit by portraying his onscreen surrogate as the Last Good Man in Football, but the characterization provides an effective viewpoint for observing the strangeness of professional sports.
Director Ted Kotcheff, always a competent craftsman no matter the genre, excels on and off the field in North Dallas Forty, using atmosphere and pacing to illustrate how frat-boy chaos and merciless competition fuse into the unsustainable lifestyles of top players; Kotcheff also creates harmonious ensemble acting, no easy task. Nolte is at his very best here, prickly and sympathetic all at once, and singer-turned-actor Davis complements him with an amiably pathetic sort of me-first pragmatism. As the villains of the piece, Coleman, Forrest, Spradlin, and the great Charles Durning form a brick wall of corporate resistance, each representing a different color of uptight intolerance. Bo Svenson and real-life NFL player John Matuszak are very funny as a pair of Neanderthal linebackers, and if comely model-turned-actress Haddon gets lost amid the movie’s male energy given her flat acting, her deficiencies are not enough to detract from the picture’s overall effectiveness.
North Dallas Forty: RIGHT ON