Cass Pennant was born in Doncaster after his mother emigrated from Jamaica while still pregnant. At six weeks old he was placed into Dr Barnardo’s where he was fostered by an elderly working class white couple. Bullied at school, not least because his birth name was Carol, a popular Jamaican boys name at that time, he found solace with football hooligans where he found he could channel his anger and became accepted by the violent West Ham Inner City Firm. Rising up the ranks he became both their leader and spokesman until he was sentenced to three years in jail followed, not long after, by a second term which led to him seeing the error of his ways and going legit as a night club bouncer. An incident on the door of one of the clubs he worked saw him being shot three times but surviving the attack and going on to write a book about his life and several books on football violence.
If ever there was a case of a film maker being too close to his subject then this might well be it. Jon Baird has crafted a movie that is so obviously in love with its subject that the resulting film feels almost uncomfortable to watch. Budgetary constraints show throughout and the filming style is not a million miles away from an ITV drama but what really grates is the way the film tries to make us really like its protagonist. Cass Pennant is notorious for just one thing – violence! For a film to try so hard to make us care for, and empathise with, this character seems morally repugnant.
Nonso Anozie does a good job in the lead role, all brooding menace and brute power, but the supporting characters are just stock roles that we have seen done so many times before, and so much better. Where the film really loses its grip is in the fight scenes. Football Factory and Green Street may not have been great films, but at least they showed the consequences of two groups of hooligans beating the living hell out of each other. Here we have people using knives, doc martens and lead pipe on each other and we see virtually no blood. It’s as if the director secretly admires what they are doing and is trying not to show it in a bad light. A film like this surely has some kind of moral duty not to glorify the acts of what are, for want of a better word, animals.
The scenes that do work well are the ones between Cass and his foster parents. It would seem that he was fostered by a kind, caring, law abiding couple who did their best to give him the best upbringing that they could but, for reasons the film doesn’t, or won’t, go into he disappoints them at every turn. There is more emotion, feeling and reality in the scene around the dinner table after he comes out of prison for the first time than in the whole of the rest of the film.
Finally, and on a personal note, I was lucky enough to be at the London premiere of Cass. After the usual introductions for the director, cast and crew, the loudest and longest round of applause was saved for when Cass Pennant took to the stage to address the audience. He may have served his time and gone on to write books but this kind of hero worship, shown in person and in the film, left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth.