“Show me what you got, you cocky little fucker,” a coach says to an 11-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimović in this adaptation of the Swedish footballer’s 2011 autobiography. It could quite easily serve as the I Am Zlatan‘s unofficial film tagline: the origin story of one of the sporting world’s self-proclaimed superhumans whose overt arrogance and unshakeable self-belief feeds his reputation as an outspoken but widely adored maverick.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Jens Sjögren’s film opts to focus largely on the struggles – the confrontations and controversy – of this colourful, charismatic character. From a screenplay penned by Jakob Beckman and the book’s co-author David Lagercrantz, it’s a decision that proves more than a little shrewd. I Am Zlatan, a welcome deviation from the familiar sport movie formula, largely avoids the cliché-ridden pitfalls that have come to define the genre, and is all the more compelling for it.
While its structure is hardly novel – chronicling the rise of Sweden’s all-time record goalscorer from humble beginnings as the son of Balkan immigrants in the Rosengård district of Malmö to his high-profile transfer to Italian giants Juventus in 2004 – in opting to shift the focus to its subject’s off-field antics, Sjögren’s movie becomes something deeper and more interesting. Disruptive at school, talented but temperamental on the pitch, the film explores Zlatan’s poverty-stricken childhood and dysfunctional family life not as a tool to push the rags-to-riches tale but to instead examine how his environment ultimately shaped him. How the anger and survival instinct helped mould him into Zlatan the player and indeed Zlatan the personality.
Such intriguing storytelling is suitably matched by the performances of the film’s central duo. As the young Ibrahimović, Dominic Andersson Bajraktati dazzles. But it’s Granit Rushiti, playing Zlatan through his late teens and early twenties, who is most striking here. His performance, in which he meticulously captures his character’s mannerisms – the walk, the stance, the dry sense of humour – is made all the more impressive by the fact that Rushiti himself appears to be half-decent with a football at his feet. The sequences at Malmö’s training ground, however fleeting, are some of the most convincing and believable of any football film ever made.
It makes for a story that quickly becomes more than the sum of its parts: an incredibly watchable football film that, needless to say, is not really about football at all. Rather, I Am Zlatan serves as a captivating look at the fine line between success and failure, between hero and villain, and the truth that, sometimes, it takes only the most uncompromising attitude to make it to the very top.
Dir: Jens Sjögren (100 mins)
I Am Zlatan is out now in cinemas
words GEORGE NASH
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