Thursday 25 September 2014

The Last Match

Cliff Gaylor (Oliver Tobias) is a football player with an attitude. When his daughter Susan (Melissa Palmisano in her only screen credit) is framed and imprisoned for possessing illegal drugs while on vacation (in either a Caribbean or South American country, it’s never really made clear), Gaylor tries all the traditional channels to free her. 

First he goes to see the American Consul (Charles Napier, here credited as “American Consul”) but he’s useless. He then goes to see a local lawyer (Martin Balsam, credited as “Lawyer”), who is just as incapable. So Gaylor does the next natural thing: he calls his football coach (Ernest Borgnine, here credited as “Coach”. Sensing a pattern here?). 

Fired by can-do attitude, Borgnine promptly volunteers his entire football team to stage a commando raid on the prison. Of course, the whole team agrees and Coach “coaches” the mission by arming and training them in the usage of machine guns. All the team now need to do is get past sadistic prison warden Yashin (Henry Silva) and his underling prison guard. Will the team be able to punt, spike, blitz, sack, snap, and tackle their way towards reaching their (field) goal? Find out today!

The Last Match (1991) had a lot going for it: a strong cast, an amazing concept, and visually the sight of uniformed football players brandishing machine guns and grenade launchers looks awesome. Unfortunately, the movie only really kicks into high gear in the final third. 

Most of the movie is a staid and bland “my daughter’s in prison” drama with echoes of Midnight Express (1978). One thing Midnight Express did not have - unless we blinked and missed that part - is a bunch of crazed footballers on the rampage shooting machine guns at Henry Silva while Ernest Borgnine happily gives instructions through a headset. 

Ernest Borgnine calls the plays for the football
commandos final assault
Sadly, because of the rarity of this movie, most people haven’t gotten to see the cast of Borgnine, Balsam, Silva, Napier, and the footballers do their thing. Had this been released on VHS during the golden age of video stores, it might have had a shot at being a well-known cult movie. Instead, it’s just a not-so-well-known cult movie, which is only really justified by the last third.

That said there are some other noteworthy moments. There’s the strange “whosh-whosh” sound effects like someone’s waving a piece of cardboard in the air and a bizarre scene where Borgnine jovially recalls his wartime experiences. Other oddities include an evil drug dealer who has a shirt that simply says “NEWS”, and a subplot about saving an Elian-like kid from the third-world hellhole that is the unnamed country they’re trying to escape from. Also there’s a guy in the cast named Jim Kelly who’s a White guy and not the Jim Kelly we all know and love. 

So to recap, we’ve got unnamed characters, who are part of a football team that’s never named, running around an unidentified country. It really shouldn’t work. Yet somehow the silliness is pretty funny. 

Another good thing about the movie is that the whole “football commandos” idea is played completely straight. Where some filmmakers may have thought this a wacky or ironic idea – everyone here seems to think it was a perfectly sane concept for an action movie. And thank goodness for that. We get more than enough irony these days as it is. 

Fourth down and close quarters machine gun action
Just look at the training sequence where fully suited-up football players shoot machine guns at targets. That’s why we keep going back to these Italian productions. They always seem to deliver in some way, shape or form. But the fact that a quality idea like this didn’t really take off to its full potential shows that by 1991 things were starting to run out of gas. 

Much like Martin Balsam, who gives a bizarre, stuttering performance. Seated throughout he seems utterly confused as he reads his lines off a piece of paper. Compare that to Borgnine, who injects the movie with some much-needed energy during the interminable first and second portions. 

In the end, The Last Match has a killer concept, but ultimately doesn’t hit the mark. Or score a touchdown, if you will.

Still, there is one moment in the film where its bonkers premise fuses happily with the conventions of the action movie: the exploding helicopter scene. 

Our favourite moment occurs during the football team’s big assault on the baddies. A huge gun battle breaks out between the football commandos and the villains, who call in some rotor-bladed air support. 

Our heroes look like they might be in a sticky spot, but one of the team has a moment of inspiration. Splitting open a football, he packs a grenade inside, before punting it at the chopper. It’s a perfect kick and the football arrives at the helicopter just at the moment the grenade explodes, whereupon the leather ball and the whirlybird disappear in fiery oblivion.

Artistic merit

What can we say? This is a classic chopper fireball. Sure the effects are extremely ropey, but when we’ve just seen a man blow up a helicopter by volleying a grenade filled football at it, we’re not going to complain. We’re just going to sit back and enjoy the creativity, the imagination, not to mention the sheer lunacy of it. 

Exploding helicopter innovation

First use of an American football to blow-up a chopper. The trick has subsequently been repeated in Three Kings (1999) where Ice Cube attaches an explosive to a football before throwing it at a helicopter. 


You have to love the makers of this film for running with the concept and giving us appropriately football-themed chopper fireball.


It might have been nice to see the wreckage fall to the ground or the pilot doing a classic “What the….” double-take. But like we said before, this no moment for petty grumbles.

Interesting fact

Director Fabrizio De Angelis has previous exploding helicopter form, having blown one up personally in Cobra Mission and overseen the destruction of another as producer on Cobra Mission 2.

This review is a guest post by our friends Brett and Ty from the great website Comeuppance Reviews. They're dedicated to celebrating action movies from the eighties VHS era. Check out their website and discover some forgotten gems.