September 03, 1979 12:00 PM

It’s not damning with faint praise to say this is the best pro football movie ever—and by yards. Nick Nolte plays a veteran wide receiver for the “North Dallas Bulls” whose ego matches his scarred drug-dependent body. It is a testing role—the character is painfully naive—but Nolte brings it off with great subtlety. While director Ted (Fun with Dick and Jane) Kotcheff minimizes football footage (and Nolte’s romantic interludes with prim Dayle Haddon), he captures the desperation of athletes whose lucrative careers are in constant jeopardy. He also elicits striking performances from singer Mac Davis as a manipulative, good-ole-boy quarterback; ex-lawyer G. D. Spradlin as a sanctimonious, unscrupulous coach, and John Matuszak as a 6’8″, 275-pound lineman, which he actually is for the Oakland Raiders. The film was co-written by Peter Gent from his novel, and since he was a journeyman receiver with the Dallas Cowboys in the ’60s, fans will tend to read in aspersions on such real Cowboys as coach Tom Landry, Don Meredith and Roger Staubach. But the movie is really about greed, exploitation and the insanity of calling something a “sport” when millions of dollars ride on every rebuilt knee, wrist cast and anesthetized ankle. (R)

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