Released in 1968, The Split was the first film ever to receive an R rating from the MPAA and the first lead role for retired Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who after leaving the game in his prime (at the time he was the NFL's career leading rusher) began a successful second career as an actor, where he brought the same energy to roles in films like Ice Station Zebra and The Dirty Dozen that he did to the field.
Based upon one of Donald Westlake's Parker novels, written under the nom de plume Richard Stark, (which despite lending itself to several cinematic adaptations never actually saw the character retain the name "Parker") Brown plays the cool and savvy career criminal McClain. Other disparate actors to portray the lead in a Stark's "Parker" adaption include Lee Marvin in Point Blank, Anna Karina in Made in USA and Mel Gibson in Payback (essentially a remake of Blank).
McClain sneakily recruits a group of various specialized criminal experts (a wonderful supporting cast that features Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland) to steal money from the Los Angeles Coliseum in the middle of a Los Angeles Rams playoff game. They pull it off but circumstances, specifically a brutal attack on McClain's girlfriend, leads to the loot being stolen. His motley crew, being the harden criminal element they are, don't believe him and if he doesn't return their money, well it won't be pretty. To put the cherry on top of the amazing cast, Gene Hackman shows up as a kind yet morally questionable detective.
The film works as a piece of entertainment and quality storytelling, but it's leaden with some compelling subtext. Jim Brown was an outspoken African American civil rights advocate so having the big heist set piece be during a football game, the sport that Brown gave his body to for the edification of mostly Caucasian stadium goers and owners, adds weight that wouldn't exist if played by any other actor. The brutal, hateful rape and murder of McClain's girlfriend Ellie (Diahann Carroll) by her landlord is spurred by misplaced and racist lust. And, Brown who was only 32 years old at the time, here represents the new guard popping up in the late 60's, while his partners, who are very quick to turn on him and a little gleeful at the prospect of torturing McClain, are portrayed by elder white men, with the exception of Sutherland (who is the same age as Brown).
Director Gordon Flemyng is nowhere near the formalist that Point Blank director John Boorman was, and smartly does not attempt to replicate any of the vanguard editing, existentialist themes or narrative tricks displayed in Blank, which was released a year prior to The Split. Everything is straight ahead and matter of fact. But Flemyng, who like Boorman is a Brit, shows a deft hand at mounting tension and pacing, most impressively during the heist that plays out in real time.
One question to wrap this up, what happened to the trend of athletes transitioning to the world of acting. Fred Dyer and Alex Karras had successful careers, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not only had a large role in Airplane!, one of the most influential comedies of all-time, he got to battle Bruce Lee in Game of Death! Since Shaquille O'Neal's attempt at movie stardom petered out, no one has really successfully tried to balance or shift careers. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing someone like LeBron James who has charisma, humor and good looks give it a serious try and not just a family friendly brand minded one like his current teammate. There are several Parker novels that have not yet been adapted, LeBron have your people get in touch with my people, let's make it happen.
The Split, which never even appears to have been released on VHS, plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, check it out, even if you could care less about football.