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MOVIE: Sheen shines in soccer saga 'Damned United'

Special Photo: Sony Pictures Classics. Michael Sheen stars as British football legend Brian Clough in "The Damned United."

Special Photo: Sony Pictures Classics. Michael Sheen stars as British football legend Brian Clough in "The Damned United."

The Damned United (R)

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Perhaps the reason sports dramas seem so generic and interchangeable is they're generally based in the U.S. and go out of their way to elicit gushing emotional uplift. Director Tom Hooper's "The Damned United" is set in England, loaded with attitude and is completely devoid of anything resembling emotional pretense. This movie is ugly, angry and in your face in all the right ways.

If presented in a traditional linear format, the film about the cutthroat business of British football (soccer to us yanks) would lose most of its desired punch. Not since "Pulp Fiction" has an out-of-sequence narrative been employed to such dazzling effect. It opens in the middle of the story and in less than a minute establishes football legend Brian Clough (rhymes with "off") as one of the most egotistical and patently unlikable characters in the history of film.

Oscar-nominee Michael Sheen ("The Queen") plays Clough and to his credit never once attempts to soften the character's jagged edges or tries to offset in any way his complete lack of decorum and civility. Clough is in possession of a brilliant sports mind, but everything else about him is thoroughly off-putting. Sheen is so good in the role we actually begin to dislike him in addition to Clough.

If you're not a big sports fan and consider European football to be a crushing bore, you'll be glad to hear the sports angle is noticeably downplayed. Most of us are aware of the English obsession and frequent thug behavior associated with their favorite pasttime; we don't need a reminder. Hooper and "The Queen" screenwriter Peter Morgan (adapting the novel by David Peace) are more concerned with professional obsession, jealousy and broken bonds.

Clough spent most of the '60s managing the Derby County team. Within a couple years, he lifted the team from Level Two basement dwellers to Level One contenders. While all of this was going on, Clough made no effort to hide his disdain for Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the manager of Leeds United, a team that won multiple league titles and was recognized as the sports' reigning bad boys.

Clough accused Revie and Leeds of every rules infraction in the book and a few that weren't. He may have been a major drag, but Clough was also a stickler for procedure. In 1974, Revie was offered and accepted the job as manager for the England national team. Want to take a guess as to who Leeds hired as Revie's replacement?

Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) was Clough's longtime assistant and scout and by all accounts was everything Clough was not. Warm, affable and genial, Taylor was content with his job and life in Derby and had his allegiances severely tested when Clough decided to jump ship. The relationship between the two men provides the movie with its heart and soul and in many ways it is the centerpiece and driving force of the story.

In the wake of the release of Peace's book and prior to the film's release, several people depicted in both have voiced opposition and declared parts of the story to be fabricated and untrue. Hmm, imagine that, a movie taking artistic liberties with the facts.

If you do a little research on your own, you'll discover whatever embellishments the filmmakers might have made were trivial and incidental. Nobody in the movie is ever depicted as breaking the law or the like. In the end, even Clough enjoys something resembling redemption.

As Don Henley once said, "get over it." (Sony Pictures Classics)