On the eve of Euro 2012, and the disturbing reports coming out of the Ukraine regarding racism and hooliganism amongst the host fans, it seems a fitting time to take a look at one of the best received films on the subject; it is a downright frightening look at football violence and the lengths the police went to, to try and curb the seemingly non-stop attacks being perpetrated by rival teams' fans - beginning in the terraces and often spilling out onto the streets in organised ‘riots’ - during one of the bleakest times in the recorded history of the sport. Better known as an actor, Phil Davies helmed tonight’s feature and directs with a firm hand as he examines the nature of psyche, mob rule and obsession, particularly of one individual policeman who loses himself in an undercover mission to expose the leaders behind the organised violence masquerading as football fandom. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves, tonight’s feature presentation is I.D.
I’ll be taking quite a close look at the film and the review will likely contain plenty of observations that many might conclude to be spoilers, however since it’s been around for nearly twenty years, I do hope you can forgive me – but for those sensitive to such things, you have been warned.
The film opens up on our main protagonist, John, a policeman conducting an interrogation. This scene is crucial as it gives us the only evidence as to John’s nature before he is consumed. Lines such as “You know me, yes you do. Honest John, milk monitor, prefect... Could've made head boy if I stayed on” give an insight into his personality; trustworthy, honest, straight up and dependable, yet the hint that there is still a rebel within (“Could've made head boy if I stayed on”), a person who takes life on his own terms. On securing the confession his obvious glee is an indication of his ambition; his drive to succeed being a key aspect of the choice made to choose him for the undercover mission that would lead to his eventual downfall.
The film is set around the late eighties, a terrible time for hooliganism during football matches, so much so that all UK teams were banned from playing in Europe. Indeed some of this stigma still remains with police forces still incredibly weary of English fans. But it was on home turf that the real horror was mete out. Rival teams would have huge ‘armies’ of loyal fans that would follow them to every game. A small section, however, were never interested in the game, but far more interested in the violence associated with mob rule. Many team’s fans had organisers behind the running battles, and a mob, fuelled up on alcohol and adrenaline needed little encouragement to spill into violence; and when a select team incite it then, for a short time, anarchy takes over and gang warfare erupts. It was during this heady time that the then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher sought to curb this unruly behaviour by giving the police unprecedented freedom and power to infiltrate the largest ‘firms’ and thus bring them down from the inside, resulting in a huge increase in operations targeting hooliganism and subsequent arrests related to it. (Remember she was also not averse to using the SAS to stop prison riots). The film is, in part, inspired by these events and by Operation Own Goal in particular which used covert surveillance and undercover operatives posing as hooligans to get to the ‘Godfathers’, the leaders, as the ‘foot soldiers’ were considered not worth the time and expense, because a conviction of the top hierarchy would ultimately disband the ‘firm’. Arrests and convictions were made but all were over turned when the Court of Appeal found substantial tampering with the evidence to secure convictions – the ramifications of which bound the police up in red tape that they are still trying to cut through today. Of course the film differs greatly within the confines of story narrative, but this basis in reality does give the film a serious authenticity.
The local football club is Shadwell, nicknamed the Dogs, because their bite is worse than their bark as viewing the latest spate of violence captured during matches testifies. When the initial undercover police operation’s cover is blown they are severely beaten by the Shadwell fans, and the DCI, conscious of the escalating violence and wanting convictions, instructs a new team to take their place. This time being made up of four officers, in two teams of two, their instructions are simple – infiltrate the Shadwell’s fan base, find the leaders and gather enough evidence to secure a lengthy prison term. To do this they are to ‘become’ fans themselves, drink with and participate in any unruly behaviour to encourage their position and thus become trusted members enabling them the freedom they need to move unrestricted within the mob. For an ambitious officer like John this was a chance to fast track his career. The initial night out is one of observation and getting to know the area; much drinking and some verbal sparring with some of the ‘real’ fans lead to their first tentative introduction into the mob. Once the night is over, John heads home and we get our first glimpse of his home life, which is, on the surface, very happy; a pretty police woman for a wife, comfortable two up, two down home full of all the creature comforts a young ambitious couple could want – they laugh at John’s drunken state and of the job he is having to do – these happy times are soon to be short lived as is hinted at when, in his euphoria, John swears at his wife, Marie, who severely reprimands him.
The initial night has the team in good stead as the following operation sees John and his partner Trevor on the fan coach to an away match where they are greeted with less distain and gradually absorbed into the mob. This leads to the two helping to defend the coach when it is set upon by rival fans in a particularly frightening attack, but whilst it raises their profile they are still being seen as ‘new members’ and thus never invited into the inner circle, or indeed Shadwell’s notorious drinking establishment The Rock public house. Having been warned to steer clear of the place due to the landlord’s uncanny ability to spot police, the squad, under the leadership of John take it upon themselves to infiltrate the pub to further their absorption into the mob. This is done over a period of time, by taking lunchtime drinking sessions as their cover of painter/decorators – shown as a montage of the two (John and Trevor) getting to know the staff and patrons. And when a rival team bus shouts abuse whilst driving past The Rock, John leads the charge in a mirror attack to the Shadwell bus weeks before. This action raises their profile within the ranks and Bob, The Rock’s landlord, takes them under his wing as young progenies. Things aren’t all smooth running though, as Trevor riding high in his drunken belief that they are fully entrenched into the mob manages to nearly blow their cover by unruly and disrespectful behaviour especially to Lynda the barmaid. This leads to a full blown confrontation between the two partners that even escalates into violence.
An incredibly interesting scene this, where the cracks are beginning to show, not just in John, but the team as a whole. And I love the observation of the different group dynamics; the police are supposed to be the ‘good guys’ but Trevor’s behaviour in the pub paints a very different light, in one fell swoop the mob looks to be the good guys! Once back at the police station John and Trevor argue about the confrontation, Trevor even ‘pulling rank’ on John leading to John seeing red and punching him out and running off. Immediately after this we observe John looking at himself in the mirror in what will become a motif for the film. Mirror images – the same but somehow different. When John first looks in the mirror, after only one or two missions, he comments to the team that all he can see is a policeman, even though the team say all they see is John. Now John sees a change in himself; he is no longer that policeman, he is becoming the part he is playing – anger, frustration and drinking are dominoes falling into the abyss as he begins to feel for the Dogs. He blinks at himself, rubs his hands over his face and the image softens, he becomes John once more. John is brought to terrifying life by Reece Dinsdale who is a fairly prolific TV character actor turning his hand to a number of genres. But in John he walks the very fine line of insanity; there is rawness to his portrayal, a gutsy edginess that means you are never quite sure what his next action is going to be. And as the film progresses those actions become ever more extreme.
Davies carefully sets the pacing of the film, each scene builds on the former as each member of the team becomes affected by the work they are doing. When the four are all out with their respective wives and partners after becoming further entrenched in their undercover work, the after dinner banter becomes all too inane and the four retreat to the toilet to discuss the next game (not the case) whereupon they start to sing/chant Shadwell’s terrace songs. Another sly look at how a common belief can override a sense of duty as the team display more in common with their prey than they do with their own lives. This comes to a head on a later night, when John disillusioned with a Christmas do for the police talks Trevor into leaving to go to The Rock and spend time with their mates. It is here when we see the last vestiges of John’s ‘good side’ as when he and Lynda become ever closer and she invites him to stay, he refuses; it is perhaps, the last good choice he makes.
As his sense of camaraderie with the Shadwell mob increases the demands it makes on his home life become more and more apparent. Drinking and swearing, at the most innocent of situations, such as getting dressed, at home becomes too much for Marie and leads to one of the most notorious scenes in the entire film. Marie taunts John about his job, how it is affecting him and how it is leaving him impotent when he viciously attacks her. But, in a deliciously Peckinpahian twist does Marie actually submit during or was it rape all the way? Her body language says one thing, but her words say another. It is just another provocative scene that Davies throws in to keep you guessing on who the bad guys really are. Because no one is painted in any particular colour – whilst we as individuals know right from wrong, good from bad, Davis presents his subject very matter of factly; thus leaving the audience to make up their own minds about the actions; the hooliganism is never condemned, likewise the actions of the police are never lauded – and so this moral ambiguity leaves many dismayed about where to hold our loyalties. Scenes such as John and Trevor pleading with officers hemming in the crowds at a match that rival fans are throwing missiles hurting people only to rebuffed with lines such as “Get back in there with the other animals,” demonstrating that there is never a clear line, as such it is a further nail into John’s psyche. John, for all his good work and ambition, is falling further into the abyss; the actions he takes are far beyond those of a normal officer, and there is worse to come, but, eventually, his determination does uncover the real conspiracy, so where is the line drawn? Indeed such a question is asked graphically in the film when John once again squares up to his team asking that very question.
Perhaps the second most provocative scene is that of John's eventual submission to his baser instincts when his hooligan persona overrides his undercover self. After leaving Marie, John makes his way into Lynda’s bed. The graphic sex scene is intercut with John's unruly behaviour and violence on the football terraces. Davies is blurring the lines between sex and violence into one cohesive whole with the final lingering shot on John’s face; a grimace of pain or pleasure, sealing his fate. From this point on, John is lost. He fully embraces the hooligan within as he strives to move further into the mobs hierarchy. This culminates in an away match where he and one other fan, Martin, heavily outnumbered by rival fans, do not run but dive, head first, into violence – violence that we never get to see as the screen fades to black, just like John’s memory of the events. Of course the clues are there as to the events, John covered in blood, the confrontation of going ‘too far’ in the police station and the radio commentators words about what happened. But Davis cleverly removes us from seeing what actually went down, thus we never actually know if John committed the acts he thinks he may have done – again we are in a moral quandary, because when John seeks to uncover what transpired his colleagues cover for him (they never even show him); very much a case of ‘who watches the watchers’ as the police hide and destroy evidence. Compare this when previous film is used throughout to watch John’s escapades - his triumphant walk in front of the crowd while being shepherded by police for example, at which point the undercover team tease John about “who is that reprobate,” and John ambiguously replies that “He does not know.” Does he really not recognise himself, or is he being facetious ...
However, this final act of violence finally brings John the result that he has been seeking; he gets introduced into the highest echelons of the Dog’s mob. Again we are not privy to what was seen or discussed but get only hints at what was behind all the hooliganism - and it reaches far beyond what was originally thought. However, just when this revelation is uncovered the operation is terminated. Another sting operation was caught manufacturing evidence and had any potential convictions quashed, and the Met. decided to check everything that was going on in the Shadwell camp. Even though there was no evidence tampering uncovered, due to the unpopular nature of the work, all the evidence collected was to remain unused with no arrests being made - meaning that everything the team had worked and sacrificed for was for naught. Save one thing. Licensing used part of their collected evidence to shut down The Rock. And here is where John finally dips beyond his hooligan persona into psychosis. He battles with his team that they have lost their friends, companions and identity. He is rejected by his police colleagues as he is unwilling (or unable) to give up his violent streak. Marie has left him and will not come back. Lynda knows he is police, severely beats him and rejects him. From being a high and mighty ‘player’ in the Dog’s army and a respected undercover officer in the police, he is suddenly left with nothing. Looking into the mirror one last time, John sees a lie, a uniformed officer that doesn’t belong either in the force or in this identity. His smashing of the mirror and destruction of the room demonstrates his breakdown from that life. His destruction of his home shows his separation from that part of his life. With nowhere left to turn, violence is his only path ... The final shot, in keeping with the moral ambiguity, remains just as enigmatic; is he still undercover or has he embraced his psychosis to such a degree he no longer exists?
Filmed on a miniscule budget with funds coming from, amongst others, BBC films and with little to no directing experience at the time Phil Davis has crafted a film that is both uncomfortable and compelling viewing. He makes the best of his limited locations and sets framing in such a way as to get that ‘documentary’ feel whilst maintaining a filmic scope; in other words it’s raw, rough and ready, but accomplished enough to look like film. The script from Jim Bannon and Vincent O'Connell is pretty uncompromising in its brutality with scenes no doubt inspired by personal involvement; I had occasion to be coming home on the train the night that Chelsea won the European Cup when something like twenty fans boarded, all drunk, in high spirits, chanting and shouting their glee – it was incredibly intimidating as it only takes one little spark for a group like that to descent into violence. The scenes set on the coaches, or on the terraces themselves reminded me very much of this feeling, the camera is right there in the thick of the crowd and Davis really captures the spirit of the match day. And in a brilliant move, in a film about football violence, there is not one single scene with football in it (discounting the kick-about the undercover boys had in their new office) because this film is not about football. In fact you could argue that it’s not about football violence either. It is more about one man losing himself within a nightmarish apparition of himself.
The cast are uniformly excellent, I’ve already mentioned how absorbing Dinsdale is in the part of John, but there are others of note. Claire Skinner as Marie is a million miles from her Outnumbered persona, and whilst she does have very little screen time, she still manages to get across the ambitious police constable and put upon wife; then there is that scene which is quite telling of her acting ability. Saskia Reeves as Lynda being the antitheses of Marie struts across the screen with a sultry sexiness born of the barmaid with attitude. Able to hold her own as the only female in The Rock her part is slightly more well defined than Skinner’s especially when she admits to her actual power play behind the bar. Being a good old Brit flick there are plenty of faces. Davies gives himself a quick cameo as a police sergeant reprimanding the undercover team whose boisterous celebrations prompt their getting their own office. Faces such as Sean Pertwee, Richard Graham, David Shaal and the irrepressible Philip Glenister (who looks way too young, and has yet to develop that gruff exterior that made Gene Hunt) all acquit themselves with aplomb.
Upon its initial release in 1995 the film was greeted with universal acclaim even winning a couple of awards. And it is easy to see why, powerful performances with a razor sharp script are a winning combination, combine that with a director willing to show the grim underside of life without flinching and you have ‘cult classic’ written all over it. Compelling and absorbing, I.D. will leave you questioning the morality of what you have just witnessed, just don’t lose yourself in it, ok?
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