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PENALTIES MOUNT ON 'ANY GIVEN SUNDAY'

The most moving moment in Oliver Stone's raucous, raunchy and entertaining "Any Given Sunday" doesn't come from Al Pacino, one of the most charismatic film actors alive, it comes from Lawrence Taylor, the great old linebacker for the New York Giants. He's one of several ex-football players to have a part in the film. He plays a defensive terror named "Shark" who's had so many concussions that the next one might paralyze or even kill him. He's willing to sign a waiver for the team and suit up anyway.

"Football is my life, it's all I know how to do," he explains to his coach. Anyone who knows Taylor's floundering and chaotic history since leaving football will hear God's own truth in that line. Taylor is no actor, heaven knows, but there's enough of his own life in that line that he puts his whole self into it. It sounds like the confession of a great player who got lost once he stopped playing.

It is, in brief capsule, everything so watchable about "Any Given Sunday" but also everything that makes it as corrupt and dishonest a film as any I've come across in a long time.

This is the one about the old-fashioned football coach who wears a ring (translation for those who require one: he won a Super Bowl) but has only a fraction of the plays in his playbook that other teams have. Because his offensive line is totally porous, each play is practically an open invitation to lunch on the quarterback. And defenses do.

It's so bad that one day he loses two quarterbacks to injury on two successive series of downs. So he puts in his third-string QB, a raw, talented, undisciplined, rap-loving 20-something named Willie who has knocked around the league's basement for a while without ever getting into a game. Now, with his first opportunity, he gets so keyed up he loses his lunch in the huddle.

It becomes his trademark. (Note: current young Jets quarterback Ray Lucas says he loses it before every game. Bills QB Jim Kelly used to say he did more than his share of it, too.)

In no time at all, Coach D'Amato (Pacino) -- a driven football man who trades his family for a life devoted to scotch, hookers and the Sunday game -- is up to his headset in a quarterback controversy and a corrupt owner who doesn't care if her players turn into hamburger as long as they produce.

It turns into rambunctious macho soap opera: will the old-fashioned coach, who can't help but hear footsteps, survive an owner who would sell anyone (including the whole team) for the right price? Will the rap-loving, jive-talking young QB survive MTV stardom and the curdled, quasi-Ali egomania of his own flamboyant mouth? Will corporate team values prevail while at the same time upholding the higher values of the game?

Like I said, macho soap opera, complete with tackles that are amplified so much that they sound like nuclear tests and shower room scenes that are full and frontal.

It's boisterous and unfailingly entertaining. Never mind that a very good film was once made about pro football, a film that makes this thing look like the phony, self-righteous popcorn tub that it is: Ted Kotcheff's "North Dallas Forty," based on the novel by Dallas receiver Peter Gent. It's a film from which "Any Given Sunday" steals liberally but not liberally enough.

Stone is giving Sunday football addicts all our sentimentalities and articles of faith wrapped up in a lewd, crude and visually arresting display that's as much fun to watch as a decent football game -- almost as long, too.

True, the incoherent action that once seemed so powerful in Stone's "Platoon" -- where soldiers never knew where their bullets were going or where the Viet Cong bullets were coming from -- seems paltry and ridiculously phony compared to any slo-mo instant replay during any real NFL game. All it does is underline the difference between a real game of football and dramatic scrimmage action for a set full of extras and technicians.

But the real foulness of "Any Given Sunday" lies in what might kindly be called Stone's oft-discussed "gender issues."

In the real world, the off-the-field stories we read about every month are about players who treat women abominably. At this every minute, there is actually an NFL player -- Carolina Panther Rae Carruth -- charged with the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, a man who was apprehended hiding in the trunk of a friend's car.

It goes without saying, of course, that the majority of the NFL is composed of good male citizens. But it's also obvious for anyone with half a brain that modern sports -- and perhaps football above all -- are increasingly populated by men who treat women like faulty gym equipment.

A good movie, full of Oliver Stone-style trouble making, could have been made of that. But that's not "Any Given Sunday." With a script like that, after all, Stone probably couldn't have signed Lawrence Taylor in his movie, or the great old running back Jim Brown. He probably couldn't have gotten Charlton Heston to play the commissioner either.

So, in the script he's got, women are the soulless villains of the piece -- Lauren Holly as a quarterback's wife who wants her husband to play even if the next game kills him, Cameron Diaz as the loathsome team owner who contemptuously tells coach D'Amato "you got old" and who would sell everyone -- except for her drink-addled mother (Ann Margaret) -- down the river at the drop of a first-down marker.

We're deep in Oliver Stoneland here. Women are the enemy in "Any Given Sunday" -- rapacious sex partners who are in it for the money.

And all that opening just a week after the arrest of Rae Carruth.

Stone, no doubt, probably believes that he's given us a good honest on-and-off-field entertainment about pro football.

And that's, arguably, what makes it so profoundly dishonest.

RATING: 2 1/2 STARS

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