When legendary Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown walked away from his NFL career in his prime, it was anything but an early retirement. The multitalented Brown, who died Thursday in Los Angeles at 87, turned his attention instead to civil rights activism and a highly successful career in film and television.
Starting with his first major movie, “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), Brown had a knack for choosing roles that he was well suited for, including his 2014 movie “Draft Day,” in which he played himself. He also made appearances on such beloved TV series as “CHiPs,” “T.J. Hooker” and “The A-Team,” served as a commentator for boxing and the Ultimate Fighting Championship and much more. Not all of Brown’s onscreen highlights are even available to stream, such as “Three the Hard Way,” but here are six key titles to help you get to know Brown the entertainer and where to find them.
‘The Dirty Dozen’
It is doubtful that soldiers like Victor Franko, Archer Maggott and Vernon Pinkley were whom Tom Brokaw had in mind when he wrote “The Greatest Generation,” his salute to America’s courageous and self-sacrificing World War II veterans. They were convicts whose sentences for brutal crimes ranged from hard labor to death by hanging. But they too distinguished themselves in battle, on screen at least, as members of “The Dirty Dozen,” one of the most unconventional war movies ever made.
Audiences had never been asked to cheer on such a disreputable platoon of misfits — or, as a psychiatrist in the film deems them, “the most twisted, antisocial bunch of psychopathic deformities I have ever run into. You have a religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near idiots, and the rest I don’t even want to think about.”
Can you name all 12? Roll call: Charles Bronson as Joseph Wladislaw; Jim Brown as Robert Jefferson; Tom Busby as Milo Vladek; John Cassavetes as Victor Franko; Ben Carruthers as Glenn Gilpin; Stuart Cooper as Roscoe Lever; Trini Lopez as Pedro Jimenez; Colin Maitland as Seth Sawyer; Al Mancini as Tassos Bravos; Telly Savalas as Archer Maggott; Donald Sutherland as Vernon Pinkley; and Clint Walker as Samson Posey.
They are led by Lee Marvin’s “ill-mannered and ill-disciplined” Major John Reisman, who, one character notes, seems to be headed for a court-martial himself. (Read more of Donald Liebenson’s 2000 feature)
‘Ice Station Zebra’
John Sturges directed this overlong but intermittently entertaining action-thriller. It’s based on the Alistair MacLean novel about a U.S. submarine dispatched to the North Pole to retrieve a downed satellite that contains a roll of film of both American and Russian missile sites. Of course, the Russians are also eager to get their hands on the film. Rock Hudson is the sub commander, and Ernest Borgnine is a Russian defector helping them retrieve the film. The scene-stealer, though, is Patrick McGoohan as an acerbic secret agent. (Susan King)
“100 Rifles” was notorious for the steamy love scenes between Jim Brown and Raquel Welch. In those days, interracial love scenes were a novelty. But that’s not the reason this big-budget movie, about a war between Indians and Mexicans, is a favorite among western fans. What they savor is the sprawling, action-packed battle scenes. Brown plays an American lawman who unites with a renegade Indian (Burt Reynolds) and a gorgeous revolutionary (Welch) to battle the villainous Mexican troops. (Dennis Hunt)
Some directors envy Alfred Hitchcock’s feeling for suspense, John Ford’s way with westerns or perhaps Ernst Lubitsch’s sly romantic touch. Not Tim Burton. He wants to be Edward D. Wood Jr.
Best known as the director of the first two “Batman” pictures, Burton a few years back made “Ed Wood,” a loving homage to the 1950s filmmaker considered a colossus of ineptitude for making his own peculiar movies his own peculiar way. Now, with “Mars Attacks!,” Burton has in effect remade “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Wood’s signature work, on a budget. A very big budget.
Probably the most expensive movie ever to be inspired by a set of bubble gum cards, “Mars Attacks!” is also Tim Burton at his Tim Burton-est, which means that it’s a kind of hipster stunt, with bursts of mild humor outnumbered by a retro taste for the bizarre and the weird. Why it was thought sane to invest a reported $100 million in such an odd and particular sensibility is a question even Martians might ponder.
Lots of recognizable names make little more than cameo appearances in “Mars Attacks!,” including Glenn Close and Natalie Portman as the president’s family, Martin Short as his press secretary, Danny DeVito as an irate Vegas gambler, and Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox as a pair of rival television journalists who help break the invasion story.
And, just like Ed Wood, Burton likes to gather together unexpected actors he for one reason or another has developed a fondness for. So singer Tom Jones and his hit “It’s Not Unusual” get prominently featured, as do blaxploitation veterans Jim Brown and Pam Grier. Even fellow directors Barbet Schroeder and Jerzy Skolimowski are featured in brief bits. (Read more of Kenneth Turan’s 1996 review)
‘Any Given Sunday’
Think of the Oliver Stone-directed “Any Given Sunday” as a fan’s notes. This energetic and diverting sports soap opera throws a few head fakes in the direction of an iconoclastic examination of the dark side of professional football, but at the end of the day it comes out squarely for, hold onto your hats, the rewards of teamwork and unselfish behavior.
The NFL, scared of its own shadow when it comes to the possibility of less than worshipful treatment, did not cooperate with “Any Given Sunday,” so the film had to come up with its own league (Associated Football Franchises of America), its own Super Bowl (the Pantheon Cup), even its own teams, complete with wacky uniforms and names like the Rhinos, the Crusaders and the Sharks.
Those gritty Miami Sharks, whose black uniforms and “Whatever It Takes” motto bring the Oakland Raiders to mind, are the film’s focus. The eye of the hurricane is Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), the Sharks’ veteran coach who is under pressure on and off the field.
Never mind that the coach has sacrificed family and friends to football, never mind that he truly believes “this game has got to be about more than winning.” Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who owns the team along with her alcoholic mother, Margaret (Ann-Margret), thinks he’s lost a step. And his veteran quarterback, Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid), is out of action with a serious injury. Fleshing out the picture are lots of awfully familiar roles, like the craven sportswriter (John C. McGinley), the long-suffering girlfriend (Lela Rochon), the scheming wife (Lauren Holly), the running back in love with his own statistics (LL Cool J), the ruthless team orthopedist (James Woods) and the more idealistic internist (Matthew Modine). NFL veterans like Jim Brown playing defensive coordinator Montezuma Monroe and Lawrence Taylor as defensive captain Luther “Shark” Lavay also get in the act, and Stone has even given himself a cameo as a TV color commentator.
The only replacement he has is an untried kid named Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), who turns out to have a gift for the game but also a selfish arrogance and a weakness for the blandishments of fame. Can a coach from a different generation teach a youngster who “doesn’t give a gee-whiz about anybody” what football is all about in time for the make-or-break big game? Yes, it’s that kind of a movie, and if you know what you’re getting into, it’s unlikely you’ll be bored. (Read more of Kenneth Turan’s 1999 review)
For those who aren’t aware that the NFL is America’s secular religion, the awe-struck tone of the professional football-themed “Draft Day” starring Kevin Costner can’t help but clue you in.
Made with the league’s complete cooperation, not to mention its spiritual blessing, this is an earnest and way-contrived endeavor that manages, due largely to Costner’s efforts, to be genially diverting in a gee-whiz kind of way.
Unless you’re a committed pro football fan, the notion of constructing a major motion picture around the behind-the-scenes shenanigans surrounding the league’s annual draft of college players may not seem like sure-fire material.
That may be why “Draft Day,” directed by the veteran Ivan Reitman and written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, opens with a stentorian pep talk by ESPN’s Chris Berman that would not be out of place at a Super Bowl locker room, or even a Roman emperor’s funeral.
Berman is not the only real-life figure playing himself: “Draft Day’s” cast includes more than two dozen of these folks, including legendary players like Jim Brown and even Commissioner Roger Goodell himself. And the film features enough lovingly burnished in-flight photography of NFL stadiums to occupy a six-person aerial unit, including four pilots.
The team names and stadiums may be real in “Draft Day,” but the characters who work for them are all fictitious, starting with Costner in his most successful big-screen role since his portrayal of “Devil” Anse Hatfield in TV’s feud-centric “Hatfields and McCoys” revived his career.
Though “Draft Day” feels far less authentic than the baseball-themed “Moneyball,” it can be amusing to watch all this inside football stuff if you are an NFL fan. The dialogue may be of the “How’s my favorite strength coach?” variety, but no league was harmed during the making of this film, and audiences will likely survive it as well. (Read more of Kenneth Turan’s 2014 review)