I’m wary of movies that announce themselves with exclamation points, as if to guard against their own deficiencies. Pretty good movie! Not as bad as you think! Please watch! Happily, Goal! earns its punctuation by combining a compelling cast with some rousing on-field action. It’s a sports movie that embraces its formula but stands out by getting the fundamentals down better than everyone else.
Young Santiago Muñez (Kuno Becker) is a phenomenal soccer talent who divides most of his time between landscaping rich folks’ homes and bussing at a Chinese restaurant. Despite his skill, he never really entertains the idea of playing at an advanced level. His family are illegal immigrants living in Los Angeles, and the reality of their status tempers his aspirations. Still, he knows he doesn’t want to start a lawn care business with his father (Tony Plana), who thinks this is their best shot at fulfilling the American dream.
When Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane), a visiting ex-player and scout from England, sees Santiago play, he arranges a tryout with his old team, Newcastle United. Without much money, a passport, or the approval of his father, however, getting across the pond is just the first of Santiago’s many trials. After he arrives, his sub-par performances leave him on the verge of being sent home, he faces resistance from jealous teammates, and my goodness, have you seen the weather in northeast England? Santiago’s pleasant personality earns him widespread support though. Everyone from the customs official to a pub local to the club nurse and his new girlfriend Roz (Anna Friel) to David Beckham want him to succeed.
The good will is infectious and catches on easily with the audience. Director Danny Cannon, whose previous credits included Judge Dredd and I Know What You Did Last Summer, elevates his film to the top of the ranks by infusing it with a clear passion for the game. The match scenes are some of the more exciting ones on screen. Cannon relies on the speed and power of soccer to generate excitement rather generic slow motion plays. He also knows how to dial up the melodrama but hold back just enough to keep things from getting too syrupy. The rest he fills with majestic stadium shots and some driving views of the English landscape.
Cannon gets the biggest boost from his actors, who turn in a true team effort. Becker inhibits Santiago completely and shows him to be an earnest young man with one foot planted in reality and the other kicking away at English Premiership dreams. His character may be a cliché, but he’s one you’ll find yourself cheering for anyway. Even the people who might derail his soccer career want to help him along. Romanian actor Marcel Iureş does a convincing job as Newcastle’s coach and softens by degrees, thanks in part to the winning personalities that Dillane and Alessandro Nivola, as the club’s partying playboy star, bring to their characters.
The writing team does a smart thing in uprooting its hero from Los Angeles to the other side of the pond and takes a circuitous route in telling an American story. But they are not so good at following through on the immigration plotline, and that ends up getting lost in a sea of footballer cameos. It would have been refreshing to see the issue from Santiago’s perspective as a rising player outside the countries of his birth and residence, but it’s easy to see why this becomes secondary. Goal! is ultimately a love letter to soccer and its fans, and on this account, it scores.
“Who Put the Weight of the World on My Shoulders” by Oasis
Alt Title: Goal! The Dream Begins (US title)
Prod: Mike Jefferies, Matt Barrelle
Dir: Danny Cannon
Writer: Mike Jefferies, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Adrian Butchart
Cast: Kuno Becker, Stephen Dillane, Alessandro Nivola, Anna Friel, Marcel Iureş, Tony Plana, Míriam Colón, Gary Lewis, Kieran O’Brien, Sean Pertwee, Ashley Walters, Frances Barber
Time: 118 min
Lang: English, Spanish
Country: United Kingdom