“Cliff: Is it on the condom?
Trevor: IT IS ON THE CONDOM!”
Blackball has all the makings of a genuine classic but it never quite received the recognition I felt it deserved. In fact the reviews were largely mixed with some agreeing with me that it’s a carefree and enjoyable little sport romp and others feeling that it’s brings nothing new to the genre or that Paul Kaye as Cliff Starkey was an aggressively unlikable lead character (I can see their point) I think that the name might have factored into this movie struggling to break free against other films out that the time (which included School of Rock, Kill Bill Volume 1 and finding Nemo) because while it’s apt it doesn’t exactly explain what it’s about. In fact I remember seeing it on the TV schedule a few times and avoided it because the name didn’t make it sound too good but when I eventually ended up watching it I loved it.
While it shares a lot of similarities to movies like Wimbledon and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (it’s so weird Vince Vaughn is in this too) this movie holds its own against fellow underdogs sports movies and is a funny and delightfully entertaining British sports movie which chooses to focus on the conventionally sleepy and low key sport of Bowls.
Apparently the story is loosely based upon the true story of Bowls player Griff Sanders who was banned from the sport for a variety of indiscretion such as drinking and swearing and most famously as it appears in the movie defacing a points card.
Blackball as well as taking a funny look at a sport we don’t get to see too often also shone a light on British culture particularly the class disparity. We see both sides of the spectrum with Ray Speight (James Cromwell) representing the rich elite and the typical crowd of old school players who you imagine playing Bowls and Cliff Starkey a young upstart with a chip on his shoulder from the wrong side of the tracks who’s gifted and loves the game but can’t quite bring himself to play by the established rules or play nice.
Funnily enough right before filming started they discovered that the main cast were all terrible at Bowls. In fact the only cast member who could play Bowls was Johnny Vegas and he didn’t play at all in the movie. Although personally I’d have loved a sports movie all about Johnny Vegas.
As sports movies go this stands out because while it’s integral to the plot it’s not the most important thing. What’s really important are the characters who make this movie with a top class performance that’s charmingly British.
When I saw Bernard Cribbins was in this I was so excited I mean this guy communes with The Wombles and was one of the best companions to The Doctor ever he deserves respect. Although that moustache is so distracting.
This movie makes good use of its soundtrack without overusing it (I’m talking to you Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad)
Now I mentioned above that the movie dances between the cultural divide in England to create tension and to make Starkey’s rise to success all the more important. This divide is ever more clear than in the opening montage however of both main characters going about their morning Bowls routine with the old posh-heads dressed in clean whites ever the stereotypical upper class meanwhile Starkey coming from an estate is unkempt and tracksuited up like the common representation of the lower class.
Oh yeah Johnny Vegas is in this as Starkey’s best friend Trevor. He’s actually funny and he’s a believable supporting character. Although was he contractually obligated to be eating in or just about to be eating in every scene. I get is Johnny Vegas is overweight. Maybe if the movie had let him play Bowls he’d have lost some weight. Speaking of which Paul Kaye is so skinny it’s absurd he’s like a whippet with northern accent.
As I mentioned earlier Starkey has a chip on his shoulder and he’s not above being selfish. After all he is the ‘Bad Boy of Bowls’ but despite being a tosser quite a lot throughout the movie he’s still likeable partly because he’s funny but mainly because he’s willing to admit he was wrong and try and win back his friends and family. Not a lot of people can really apologise (myself included) so it’s real to show that no one is perfect.
As well as that you can tell that he really cares about the game. The scene where he tells some kids about that first toss showed a side to him you don’t really get to see, without cockiness or bravado he’s just trying to pass on his love for the sport. Speaking of which one of the more touching scenes which shows his commitment to the game is where he tells Kerry that he’d sneak into any pristinely kept lawn just for a chance to play on the ‘green velvet’
The Australian brothers as well as being the main antagonists of the game (their image hanging over Starkey from the get go) are also pretty funny. Also go by a name that sounds like an infectious disease…beware the deadly Doohans.
As well as showing us sporting excellence the movie also manages to slip in an opposites attract love story. It’s so weird because he’s all rough around the edges and loud and she’s just lovely. I don’t even see what it is that she likes about him to be honest I think she just wanted a little bit of rough.
This movie is good although if I’m being honest it’s objectively not as good as I think it is but what I really like about it is that it presents a natural showman, someone with a lot of talent who’s willing to do things with a bit of flair and make a tit of himself. Other than the constant flicking of Bowls to his hands with his feet or the infamous rizzla trick the scenes which best shows this and one of my favourite in the movie is him entering the final contest to play for England flagged by a brass band playing ‘eye of the tiger’ as a nod to both Rocky and Muhammad Ali. He doesn’t take anything seriously just flashes that sardonic grin.
The movie does a good job of handholding us through the rules of bowls without boring us.
I think the best scene in the movie is the payback scene when Starkey pissed at being banned from the sport for 15 years because of some silly infraction decided to get his own back and…crash the party. The scene has a phenomenal musical cue ‘won’t get fooled again’ as he leaps onto a fancy long dinner table and sent a bowl hurtling down the table, shattering plates and glasses as a Screw you to the establishment as well as a challenge to Speight. In my mind it represents the key aspect of the film, the working or lower class crashing the party of the silver spoons and making it known that they are not happy.
Something that’s important to note is that he complains a lot about being looked down upon but does nothing to heel himself which I think it’s a very honest point to make.
I think what’s best is that despite not trying to help himself and at times being downright selfish he’s still charming at times I think almost entirely because of the energy and passion that Paul Kaye brought to the role especially when working against more season actors such as Cribbins (who’s character is called Mutley btw) and James Cromwell (I honestly can only think of this guy as the farmer from Babe and Babe: Pig in the city)
I honestly completely forgot that Vince Vaughn was in this and he was just funny. He brought a little America to this distinctly English film.
I’ve mentioned before that I can see a little of Dodgeball in this movie (I wonder if when he was making that movie he made some suggestions based on this) you can see this clearest in the exhibition match at the end.
It’s around the half an hour mark that me goes from being a charming dick to a straight up dick. He still has plenty of time to fix that though.
Something that really got to me was the scene of them talking on the phone and the way she smiles she seems like genuinely happy for him like she’s actually in love which makes the whole thing so much more real and makes him being a dick so much worse.
Maybe I’m wrong but I doubt that regardless how popular he’s is they wouldn’t get some flavour of the month from a second rate sport to host the MTV awards. I do believe though that they would bring him on for a stunt.
The movie makes a point of showing just how far people will go to humour the rich and/or famous. Something that I like is that he still seems so out of depth with his good fortune.
And poor Trevor (Johnny Vegas) is riding his friend’s coat tails a little but he does really seem to care about looking after him. Perhaps just slightly less than getting two puddings though.
It’s about fifty minutes in after an argument with his girlfriend Kerry and finding his grandad unconscious having fallen over decorating he starts to lose his edge and think that maybe he’s been wrong.
Why is Trevor watching football when he could be drinking tea with his digital monkey.
Both men despite being very different are more similar than they’d like to admit and end up having their own existential crisis and try to repairs the mistakes they’ve made throughout the film.
And they both redeem themselves by apologising to those they wronged before kicking ass and bringing a win for England. I think I’ll give this movie a 6.5/10.
First Published on: https://offtherecordblog.org