Twenty: The Firm, Hooliganism, and Masculinity Gone Awry

The Firm (1989) is a TV movie (not the Tom Cruise legal thriller) about British football hooligans made for Screen Two, a BBC anthology series. Gary Oldman was actually in three of these productions, but The Firm stands out in that lineup, and I’d say it’s the top of his work in the 80’s (and ranks pretty high overall). Though decades old and barely over an hour long, director Alan Clarke’s searing take on the middle class hooligan holds up well considering the issues that the “hoolie” subculture pose today. Also, I really dig it.

The Firm (and Gary) might age like a fine wine (or ale), not so much hooligans.

I’ve seen a few movies that touch on hooliganism, and most of them basically… make the whole thing seem cool. I mean, the lifestyle isn’t interesting in the slightest to me, but neither is the life of an ancient Spartan, but 300 made that look pretty dope, right? Contemporary movies about hoolie life, like hooliganism itself, appeal to an interest in community as well as a natural desire to blow off steam (and look tough doing it). I think we all get that, but it’s something that apparently speaks (or… screams…) to men. All that is very reasonable, but there’s a big problem– hooliganism isn’t about that. It uses the allure of brotherhood and the concept of righteously “standing your ground” to mask or excuse what’s at its heart, which is senseless violence.

In reality, hooliganism is a collection of gangs whose members, as The Firm depicts, promote violence by challenging one another’s masculine prowess. I’d say that’s an example of toxic masculinity if I ever saw one, and The Firm doesn’t shy away from it.

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • The Firm‘s ranking on the Oldometer: 9/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Gary is Bexy, a British middle class bro who lives for the BUZZ that violence gives him. It’s one of Gary’s earliest major roles and he’s on FIRE. He does a remarkable job of walking the line between scary AF and shamefully childish, thus creating what I think is a baller (LOL) performance of power and loserdom. (Apparently he was memorable enough here that he still gets recognized as “Bex” on the street when he’s in England, but the movie is still pretty underseen in the US)
  • Does Gary die in this one? Yup.

For this particular movie, I’m going to go all smarty-pants on you and woman-splain some ideas first, so if you’re not into that by all means skip on to the movie-talk.

Toxic Masculinity: The More You Know

Me obsessively over-explaining things to bored readers

(and everyone who knows me, but never mind)

So let’s talk about what toxic masculinity is for a second. It’s not a phrase I just love to throw around; for one, it’s overused to the point of losing its meaning. For two, lots of folks just hate it, and the moment it comes up in discussion, said folks tend to dismiss and shut the doors of the conversation. To be sympathetic, I think the reason for this attitude is irritation with trendy, academic (or faux-academic) language. I think also this kind of language tends to pour out in abundance from individuals (and corporations..), often in an effort to continue the conversation, but may result in the appearance of virtue-signaling (another term getting its exercise of late) or a forced faux-“wokeness” that can grate on audiences who just feel exhausted or talked down to.

To be more truthfully cynical, it’s also the kind of term that misogynists hate because old timey man stuff is their favorite thing and bitches keep ruining their memes and their video games.

So the thing is, it’s not a new concept, it’s just a very convenient title for a phenomena that has been around a very long time. It is not a diss on men (trust me, I love men, if you couldn’t tell) or even varied concepts of masculinity, it is a description of a “brand,” worldview, code, or whatever you want to call it, which dictates that in order for one to be considered masculine, cool, or even just an acceptable male, one should engage in harmful behavior. It’s the concept that you are not a man, that you do not pass the gender test, unless you are into and encourage dangerous stuff. An extreme example of this would be rape, encouraged by your social circle because 1) “real” dudes get laid 2) it is not “manly” to be told no by a woman. Less intense examples: provoking fights to prove manliness, repressing emotions and shaming other men who display their feelings because men should be “strong,” refusing to admit wrongdoing because a real man is always right, making knowingly uncomfortable moves on women to display libido or masculine power and confidence, etc.

It’s a rejection of kindness, politeness, and even the humanity of other people on the basis that humane traits somehow make one less of a man. It’s called toxic because it is deadly in the worst cases, but also because it’s an outlook that can permeate– it’s a mob mentality that feeds off the very real and natural desire to be accepted and included in a community. It’s bad for society, and y’know, it’s really bad for men. 

Heysel Stadium Disaster

British Hoolies: A Brief Overview

Though hooliganism has existed since the 1880’s, the movement would not reach its peak, so to speak, until the 1970’s and 80’s, when fighting between firms (most notably a murder of a Blackpool fan by a Bolton Wanderers hooligan) prompted the implementation of fences and crowd segregation at football games. Fences were of no use, however, in 1978 when riots broke out during an FA World Cup quarter-final.

In the 1980’s, British hooligans could no longer be contained, bringing international shame to England and the UK at large. Once a largely working class activity (that some members would even view as an anti-government movement or a protest against police brutality), football firms (clubs) began to attract more middle class, or “Thatcherised” working class allegiance than ever before, essentially creating an archetype that sociologist Ian Taylor characterizes as prone to “individualism, chauvinism, and racism, exposing the brutish nature of contemporary British masculinity.” With this crowd, English firms grew particularly organized, better funded, and as violent as ever.

Outbursts of hyper-violence were now on full display at away games and resulted in a staggering number of deaths and even more injuries. In 1985, an English-led riot at Heysel Stadium caused 39 deaths and countless injuries, resulting in the Thatcher administration cracking down on “the English disease” as a part of its law and order campaign. Though there would be another large-scale riot in 1988, the ban on all British firms from away games eventually caused the mass violence to dwindle, and news relating to hooligan firms was slow in the 90’s. 

The relative quiet of this decade did not mean that hooliganism was dead, of course, nor that the subculture was experiencing stasis. During this period, the social ramifications of Thatcherism were sinking in, joined by a sense of disenfranchisement. The shifting of the working class and the middle class, the pursuit of individualism and consumerism, and the generation of “new laddism” were at work in Britain, all of which contributed to the reshaping of a sentimental, resentful, and often upwardly mobile generation of hooligan.

Leaning Casually: The Manliest of All Activities

Anyway, back to the movie

The Firm tells the story of Bexy, the leader of the ICF-inspired firm (here thinly veiled by the moniker Inter City Crew) who participates in an intense rivalry with YETI, the leader of The Buccaneers, another local firm (yes, he calls himself Yeti– is this just men being weird or is it a British thing?). Bexy, despite his successful home life as a realtor, husband, and father, is more concerned with achieving legendary status within the hooligan hierarchy. Bexy’s firm meets with others in the area to propose a joining of forces for a “national firm” in order to make an impact at an upcoming away game (have intimidation, will travel). The other firms, including the Buccaneers, approve of this plan, but are threatened by the suggestion that the “Top Boy” of this national firm would be Bexy himself. The gauntlet now thrown down, all of the local firms plan to do battle with one another in order to ascertain the leader.

“Fellas, is it gay to demand the position of TOP BOY in a hotel room full of dudes?”

Despite Bexy’s obsession with reaching this pinnacle, it becomes clear that he is even more obsessed with destroying his personal rival, Yeti. The ICC’s eventual brutal defeat of the other firms makes him even more ravenous to “win” and, after some bullying of his own crew, Bexy commits to what even his mates refer to as a suicide mission.

The manner in which the character of Bexy is presented is compelling (largely due to Oldman’s crazy magnetism– did he have an off switch when he was this young orrr?), but it’s clear that he’s an overgrown boy, laughable in his pointless pursuit of status.

We shall fight them on the throw pillows…

The movie surveils Bexy with unforgiving tight close-ups during moments of boiling rage, and follows him at all times using Clarke’s signature steadicam to build an incredible freneticism. Bex is a ticking time bomb, and we’re never quite sure what will set him off, but this style also reveals the dude’s insecurity in private moments. At his childhood home, Bex sequesters himself into his old bedroom (now devoted to his hooligan memorabilia— as Gen-Yer’s childhood rooms probably are to Nsync posters, hm?), a space where he rehearses his planned attack on Yeti. Bexy practices beating his opponent by clubbing pillows and trying out his war cry. The scene is unsettling but simultaneously HILARIOUS, as is much of Bex’s behavior, such as when he and his fellow ICC members pose for pictures endlessly with a variety of weapons, attempting to strike just the right scary stance to frighten their competition (while Bexy’s father works the camera).

TRY IT AGAIN WITH THE SEPIA FILTER!!

As the ICC meets and poses for their “threatening” photographs, the suggestion of feral violence strongly opposes the mundanity of doilies and tea services that surround the group. Supporting the evidence of Thatcher-era hooliganism attracting the middle class, Bex’s world is obviously not one of hard knocks. His car is mid-grade. His quaint home is identical to all of the other houses in the neighborhood, and inside it is littered with generic decor, children’s toys, and family photos. Bexy and his nemesis Yeti exchange barbs NOT in dark alleyways, but by using their home phones while Bexy watches figure skating on his TV set (I can’t, it’s too good).

Normalcy is precisely what Bex resents though, in spite of the fact that this lifestyle supports his passion. Here the movie wisely lends an ear to the only sensible character, Bexy’s wife Sue, played by boss bitch Lesley Manville (who happens to be Gary’s first real-life wife, and also sans off switch– see her in Phantom Thread or Another Year ASAP). After Sue finds that her young son has injured himself by playing with one of Bex’s weapons, she is disgusted and confronts her husband, yelling at him for his toxic craziness and reminding him that a “normal life” is hardly despicable. Bex screams at her that he will not change because, like an addict, he “needs the buzz!” 

I may love Oldman, but I have to point out that Manville is incredible. Lesley continued to knock it out of the park acting-wise WHILST being a single mom and a boss bitch; post-divorce, Gary went Hollywood (when their child was only a few months old) and Lesley stayed in the UK, but decades later they were both nominated for Oscars in the same year! You get it, Lesley!

Undaunted by what she recognizes as her husband’s performativity, Sue refuses to endanger her child, forbids any further ICC activity in her home, and verbally shreds Bex by exposing his ego. After silencing him with a slap, Sue informs Bex that the neighborhood considers him and his “boy’s games” a joke. While members of their community may not laugh to his face out of fear, Sue informs him “they laugh at me, darling, you don’t see it!” As Bex tries to retreat from Sue’s wrath, his wife succinctly pinpoints the reality that Bex (and the typical hooligan he represents) refuses to understand; that he is playacting in a dangerous game, and his propensity for violence is the only thing that protects him from open mockery. Bex then runs off to stay at his mum’s house, like the manly dude he is.

I looove this scene, and while I’m not into including videos on MYWG, I feel compelled, cause you gotta see it:

Bex’s dismissal of Sue provides contrast to his feelings for the males in his life. His desire to prove to his father, a hooligan nostalgic for the “old days,” that Bexy’s version of the ICC is fierce, as well as Bexy’s ignorant encouragement of his toddler son’s admiration of hooligan culture, hints at a cycle of generationally instructive bad behavior. Yeti, of course, represents the hollow would-be achievement of self-imposed male conflict, and Bexy’s consuming obsession with this rival dwarfs his interest in his own crew, challenging the validity of claims that hooliganism’s heart rests in brotherhood.

Good Ole Toxicity

When Gary forgets to brush his teeth YOU KNOW

The Firm occasionally acknowledges hooliganism’s appeal to unsatisfied men and their sense of community and duty, but it quickly reveals that to be an excuse. When the guys observe a TV “expert” speculating about the psychology of hoolie tribalism, one of them sums it up pretty well: “Why don’t they say that we just like punching each other?” Much of the communal activity of the ICC spawns from misogynist ribbing, threats, peer pressure, and mockery within the firm itself. So here’s some trademark toxic stuff:

  • When the boys from the gang get together at the local pub, their talk of rivalry is broken up only by misogynist jokes about women in general, and when female entertainers arrive the entire ICC bursts into chants of “get your tits out! Get your tits out!”
  • At Bexy’s house, a hazing ritual causes a new member to fear for his life as he submits to what Bexy implies is probable poisoning (the gang is pranking him, but before he realizes this he still makes the decision to risk his life so as not to appear unmanly).
  • Later such pressure becomes dangerous in reality as Bexy bullies Wesley, one of his more timid ICC brothers, resulting in Wesley receiving an enormous gash to the face after trying to prove his mettle in an attack.
  • When Bex goes to visit Wesley to check out his (horrifying) stitched up facial injury, he encounters Wesley’s brother, who warns Wesley against Bex and condemns the firm. Bex head-butts him and knocks him to the ground.
  • Bex continues to threaten his own inner circle by intimidating and physically assaulting a neighbor and friend in a pub bathroom, telling him “I make a terrible enemy, mate.”
  • Bexy menaces a member of his crew who dares to voice his concern about the attack on Yeti turning into a suicide mission. Bexy tackles this naysayer in the company of the firm, provoking him physically and challenging his masculinity before forebodingly stating “you’ll see me every day, and I hate seeing people who let me down.”

Can you hear me now?

Le yikes.

So it’s not a huge shock that when Bex finally corners Yeti, his great white whale (who… again, is just another pasty middle class guy), he is killed. A sacrifice to The Buzz, he has abandoned his family and relatively comfortable life for absolutely nothing.

This point is driven home by the final scene, finding what remains of the ICC praising Bex in memoriam. The painted hooligans, awash with emotion, speak their “truths” to the camera, insisting “Bexy did not die in vain– he brought us together!” The gang calls their fallen leader “a visionary,” the hooligans recommit to their firm, saying “we’ll do it anywhere– all over Europe, and they can’t stop us!” Another member declares “if they stop us at football, we go boxing, we go snooker, we go darts!” The lads sing Bexy’s name to the tune of “Amazing Grace” and reverently cheer for England. It’s pretty chilling.

Pssst… Gary, is babycham a fake baby, or very small fringe for a tiny mattress?

The Firm condemns characters who should “know better” and in fact damage rather than enhance their communities. While outwardly Bex’s ICC purports that violence is a natural expression of brotherhood, the truth is that these guys desire to justify utterly destructive behavior because they enjoy it. Bex and men like him are unwilling to view their lifestyle as unnaturally villainous, so they choose the narrative that proves their “inherent” masculinity rather than confront their own taste for sadism. 

Why Any of This Matters: The Firm Stands Alone (and, well… firm)

Young man Oldman and old man Clarke obviously had a blast on set

I won’t bore you with more history, but hooliganism (and toxic masculinty, obvs) is still a thing. Remember those “cool” hooligan movies I mentioned earlier? There is currently a cycle of films and “hoolie lit” which have enjoyed great popularity and strengthened the hooligan legend rather than deconstructed it, making the hoolie, once called the “English disease,” one of Britain’s most popular international exports (!!). Unfortunately, this export trades heavily on its connection to male bonding, a strategy that encourages consumers to dismiss the genre’s glorification of violence.

Scholars have related the international interest in British “fan violence” to the social acceptance of violence in wider society. It is then beneficial to reflect on the starkness of The Firm, which, for now, stands alone as a cinematic reminder of the inability for those entrenched in the hooligan lifestyle to separate toxic masculinity from community. Consider this: The Firm denies its viewer even a glance at a single football match– an intentional omission, according to Clarke, who stated of his film: “it’s not about football, nothing to do with it. It’s about tribes.”

                       

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