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Fight scenes aside, 'Hooligans' lacks punch

Anyone troubled by the cloudy performance Elijah Wood is currently giving as Jonathan Safran Foer in ''Everything Is Illuminated" might want to try him in ''Green Street Hooligans." He's not great, but there are at least signs of life, although none of the ones he recently brought to his nasty little part as a mute sex freak in ''Sin City." Here, he plays Matt Buckner, a disgraced Harvard Crimson reporter who heads to London after a wrongful expulsion from the university for drug possession.

London is the home of his sister, Shannon (Claire Forlani), who's living an upscale life with her husband, Steve (Marc Warren), and their newborn son. Strangely, Matt has met neither. But he does get rapidly acquainted with Steve's younger brother, Pete (Charlie Hunnam), a lean, mean hothead who introduces Matt to the world of soccer hooliganism.

But he does so reluctantly. For Matt is American, and the boys in Pete's brood hate outsiders. They also have a vicious contempt for journalists. (Strike two for Matt.) So the Yank tells his new, surprisingly stylish buddies that his college major was history. The movie's central drama will hinge on his silly secret, but in the meantime, Matt is all ears -- or, in Wood's case, all eyes. He drinks. He smokes. He bludgeons.

''Green Street Hooligans," which was directed and co-written by Lexi Alexander, has a rumbling energy. The brawls between Pete's Green Street Elite and a rival gang are calamitous, brutal, and persuasively ugly. The movie, though, is nonsense. At its most credible, the story evokes fond memories of the adult drug narcs hiding among American high schoolers on ''21 Jump Street."

Indeed, we know we're in trouble when Matt tells us in his narration that he is ''about to learn what no Ivy League school could teach me." In fact, this film is a long, transparent training course for him to redeem himself back in Cambridge. The business over Matt's journalism background starts to seem absurd because it's never adequately justified.

Alexander grew up in Germany watching soccer with her brother, and ''Green Street Hooligans" is meant as a testament to the brutality she witnessed. Her movie might be tolerable if the screenwriting were as clean as the boys' sneakers and the dramatic weight were evenly distributed. Unfortunately, the beatings are often more interesting than what's caused them. The rare exception involves Steve, although he's compelling mostly because Warren is. The actor's tough and beaten visage lets us in on the character's guilty back-story. When Matt comes home with his maiden bruise, Warren suggests a mood more post-traumatic than simple rage.

The same can't be said for the other men in the cast, especially Hunnam, who's not fooling anyone with Pete's peacock intensity. Hunnam's last big part was the title role in a jolly adaptation of ''Nicholas Nickelby." He probably wanted to stretch himself into less polite territory, but this bellicose superthug is too much of a stretch. It's impossible to watch him and not wish for a tall glass of Heath Ledger instead.

As for Wood, this movie is not quite his pint of Guinness. He often looks too astonished to be believed, which confirms that the picture's idea of what makes dramatic sense is borderline laughable. When, at the movie's climax, Wood says, ''I don't know where my home is anymore," we know we're in the grip of something ridiculous. We also know that, sadly, Wood's identity crisis means we're not in Middle-earth anymore.

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