Dir. Lexi Alexander.US-UK. 2005. 108mins.

An exciting, if superficial, exploration of footballviolence in the UK, this tight little drama is a showcase for an exceptionalpair of young British actors and German-born debut feature director LexiAlexander. Lord Of The Rings star Elijah Wood, clearly eager to breakout of hobbit mode, acquits himself as the lone American who is accepted into agang of football thugs.

Hooligans' distribution prospects in the UK - where it opensin August via UIP - may be affected by its concessions to the US market; it'snot nearly as ferocious as many British TV dramas, an aspect football-madaudiences in England might see as timid.

Although Hooliganswon the Jury Prize and Audience Award at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas,earlier this year (it also played Tribeca), prospects in the US, where interestin football is still quite limited, might suffer the opposite effect. The trickStateside will lie in designing a marketing campaign that concentrates on therelationships while nipping in the bud any and all references to Bend ItLike Beckham.

Alexander, who claims tohave learned the culture of football firms (or gangs) in her native Germany,shows tremendous confidence in her feature debut, especially in exploring anexclusively male domain.

The story, scripted byAlexander, Joshua Shelov and UK writer Dougie Brimson, is straight up and downbut the realistic dialogue and genuine repartee delivers a verisimilitude equalto that of a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.

Alexander establishes themilieu with a bone- and glass-crunching street fight between rival footballfans, establishing the street fighting credentials of Pete (Hunnam) and hismates. After the credits, a flashback travels to Boston where Mark (Wood) hasbeen expelled from Harvard's journalism school, having taken the fall for anover-privileged coke-snorting colleague.

It's an indication of thestrength of the rest of the film that one can accept this sort of class-basedmilquetoast behaviour from a putative journalist, himself the son of a rovingwar correspondent.

At loose ends, Mark flies toLondon to visit his sister (Forlani), her Eastender done-good husband Steve(Warren) and their baby; when first seen in London Mark is climbing the stairsout of the Tube into the morning aftermath of the introductory street-fight.Before he can put his bags down at his sister's house, Steve's brother, Pete,is at the door, asking for a loan.

Next comes Mark'scrash-course in hooliganism, then the moment when he proves himself not so mucha fighter as a cunning strategist. The rest of the film is a coming together ofthis unlikely pair, the pint-size American and the rangy leader of a footballgang, otherwise known as the Green Street Elite (GSE).

Nemesis comes in the guiseof Bower (Gregory), Pete's lieutenant, whose resentment at the newcomer festersinto outright hostility.

Eventually Marks' journalismbackground and his penchant for keeping a journal, gets him into trouble. "Theonly thing worse than a Yank," warns Pete, early on, "is a cop or a journo."

A mid-story appearance ofMark's war correspondent father is badly scripted but does serve to provideBower with ammunition in his bid to remove Mark from Pete's affections: hespots Mark, who is joining his dad for lunch, entering the offices of TheTimes, and draws the wrong conclusion, namely that Mark is a journalistmole. The tensions rise further when it turns out that Steve was once himselfthe Major, the one-time leader of the GSE.

The film has two standoutperformances: Hunnam (British TV's Queer As Folk, Nicholas Nickleby)is hugely charismatic as Pete, while, in a darker vein, Gregory broodsmagnificently in a role worthy of a young Robert Carlyle. Other secondaryperformers are strong: Forlani has the thankless but thankfully brief role inthe film's only female-speaking part.

Wood takes some getting usedto - his small stature and large sensitive eyes make him a more likelyknock-down toy than a pugilist. But the film gives him more punches than hethrows. The many fight scenes are expertly choreographed while cinematographerAlex Buono employs hand-held camera work and blur pans to maximum impact.

Less impressive are theaftermaths. Despite its claims to realism, the film ducks away from thehospitalising effects of this sort of violence. A coda where the new, improvedMark gets his own back on the rich coke-head is an unnecessary piece of revengefantasy. Still, a highly-likeable story of male-bonding with just enough edgeto keep it honest.

Prod co: Odd Lot Entertainment
Int'l sales:
Mandate Pictures
UK dist:
Deborah Del Prete, GigiPritzker, Donald Zuckerman
Dougie Brimson, JoshuaShelov, Lexi Alexander
Alex Buono
Paul Trejo
Prod des:
Tom Brown
Christopher Franke
Main cast:
Elijah Wood, CharlieHunnam, Claire Forlani, Leo Gregory, Marc Warren