Cliff (surly Oliver Tobias) is the super-terrific quarterback of some unnamed football team, and as Fabrizio DeAngelis’ (under the super-terrific nom de guerre Larry Ludman) The Last Match (aka L’ultima Meta) opens, he somehow manages to pull a super-terrific win against another unnamed team out of his ass (not that any of this is shown in any coherent fashion), all while super-terrific Coach Keith (the ever-enthusiastic Ernest Borgnine) cheers him on from the sidelines. Shortly thereafter, and for absolutely no discernible reason, some anonymous guy slips drugs into the handbag of Cliff’s daughter Suzy (the super-terrifically cute Melissa Palmisano), who has been vacationing in the Dominican Republic with her super-terrifically overstimulated boyfriend George (Robert Floyd). Suzy is taken to the not-so-super-terrific prison governed by Warden Yachin (Henry Silva), and after Cliff kind of/sort of runs into nothing but red tape, he decides that his only option is to bust his little girl out. In his football uniform.
Sports films are typically about the triumph of the human spirit. It is less important that the protagonist emerges victorious in whatever athletic field in which they are engaged than it is that he/she overcomes his/her inner demons and character flaws to become a stronger person in the process (Exhibit A: Rocky). Audiences love to cheer on the underdog, because they identify with the archetype. Everyone feels like they’re up against seemingly insurmountable odds at some point or another. Not being a sports fan, you would think that sports films wouldn’t appeal to me, but the plain fact is that they do, and this is because of what I mentioned above. The best in this genre play to a broad audience that transcend the sports aspects.
If anything, the actual sports in a sports film usually play like the fights in an action film or the finale of a horror film. In the good ones, they are the delicious gravy on the meat of character development and thematic exploration. In the bad ones, they are filler designed to distract you from the film’s innate shortcomings. It’s kind of rare that we get a sports film where the athletes are on top and stay on top from beginning to end. After all, where’s the excitement in that? What’s the point if the protagonist(s) never have to rise above mighty hardships? This, then, is the primary reason why The Last Match is a dud. We’re told (but not until the film’s end) that Cliff’s team starts off poorly in every game, but they always manage to turn it around and win. As previously hinted, the football games are edited in such a random manner (by Adriano Tagliavia, under the super-terrifically-on-the-nose pseudonym Adrian Cut; get it?), we never see Cliff’s team go through this supposed struggle, because we’re never one hundred percent certain what the hell is going on at all. In fact, I would go so far as stating that the only shots that make any sense in these sequences are those of Coach Keith doing his coaching thing and those of the cheerleaders doing their cheerleading thing. We have to take it as writ that Cliff’s team are all winners all the time, which is great if you bet on their games, but it doesn’t work for a film, even one that’s not strictly about football (despite the inordinate amount of time devoted to showing football games onscreen).
Football players are often likened to modern day gladiators; warriors who do battle on a field of honor (we’re talking theoretically here). Consequently, they tend to be depicted in fictive works as large, scowling thugs (sometimes with a heart of gold, if the classic “Mean” Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial has taught us anything at all). Nevertheless, this doesn’t really work on film, unless their purpose is as either henchmen or cannon fodder (and make no mistake, the majority of Cliff’s team are exactly that, though I don’t recall any of them getting so much as grazed by a bullet with one exception). The sports film protagonist needs to have something with which viewers can connect, even if they’re not very nice people (Exhibit B: Raging Bull). This is the secondary reason why The Last Match is a clunker. Cliff, as essayed by Tobias, is one of the most miserable pricks I’ve seen as the protagonist in a film in quite a while. He mildly tolerates everyone with whom he comes into contact. He is aloof to the point of apathy, even when talking with his daughter, who we have to take it on faith that he loves since he goes through all this hassle to help her out (watch his non-reaction to the injury of one of his pals which is discovered, predictably, on the plane ride home, if the rest of the mountain of evidence in the film up to that point doesn’t convince you). He is condescending, even to the people who are on his side (including, but not limited to, a perfectly wasted Martin Balsam). When a character who previously gave Cliff shit (justifiably or not) suddenly pops up and says he wants to talk, Cliff instantly whoops the man’s ass (justifiably or not) rather than hear even one word he has to say. While we certainly feel for Suzy to some extent or another, Cliff is nothing but a curmudgeon, the blunt, dull instrument this film uses to bang square pegs into round holes.
The film is also adamant in its depiction of the local populace. The Dominicans in The Last Match HATE Americans (I don’t think any Dominican ever refers to any non-Dominican characters by their actual names; it’s always as “American”). One of Suzy’s jailers states “nothing is denied you people in my country.” Yachin basically tells Cliff point blank that he’s banging Cliff’s daughter and throwing it in his face simply because Cliff and Suzy are Americans. Whether or not this enmity is warranted, the filmmakers waste even less time jumping to portray Dominicans as base creatures and their nation as a corrupt hellhole (though I don’t think it has to be Dominicans; I’m sure just about any non-white country/populace would suffice for the filmmakers). Suzy is stripped and searched after her arrest, and we get reaction shots of the male guards ogling her like wolves eyeing up a lame deer. Balsam’s character states, “Nobody of any importance ever comes to this godforsaken part of the world.” A character wants Cliff and his pals to take his son out of the country with them, because he knows just how horrible it is living there. We’ve definitely seen these sorts of attitudes before in genre films, but ordinarily they aren’t so pointed, so mean, as they are here.
Finally, the film’s climax seems to miss its own point. Even while we look forward to the assault on the prison, it doesn’t play out satisfyingly. The only standout to the affair is that the good guys all wear their uniforms (which boggles the mind if they weren’t looking to be recognized and/or cause an international incident). After all of the relentless dourness that comes before it, the film needed a win in this regard, but it’s as joyless as everything and everyone else in the film, and it robs it of what appeal it may have had.
MVT: Borgnine gives it a lot of gusto, but he’s the one brightly over-ebullient spot in an otherwise moribund picture.
Make or Break: When Yachin receives his comeuppance, it’s anticlimactic in just about every respect. Silva (and the audience) deserve better.