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Review: Zlatan Ibrahimovic delivers on star power in Zla-La-Land

Watch Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the E:60 feature 'zLA zLA Land,' which airs Sun., June 24 on ESPN at 9 a.m.

In one of the very first scenes of Zla-La-Land, the latest offering in the epic and eclectic Zlatan Ibrahimovic series, the film's protagonist, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is sitting on the bench -- and no one is happy about it. It is shortly after halftime of Zlatan's debut on March 31 with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and the Galaxy are getting soundly beaten 3-0 by their crosstown rivals LAFC.

The fans in the stadium shout Zlatan's name, begging for him -- even though he's jet-lagged, even though he arrived in town just a day earlier from England -- to entertain them. In the corporate suites, team officials ask one another how much longer they will have to wait. On the bench, the head coach pleads with the team's trainer, who has restricted Zlatan to 20 or 25 minutes of action in his opening game, for approval to send the big man on a little early.

You can guess what happens next: Zlatan runs on the field. The crowd goes berserk. Zlatan unleashes an alien-level shot from near midfield to spark a stunning rally. Zlatan scores the game-winning goal in the final seconds. Zlatan preens and explains to the media that he was only doing the people's bidding: "They wanted Zlatan," he says. "So I gave them Zlatan." It is Rocky, basically, but with (a lot) more man bun.

Formulaic? Of course. But successful movie franchises have forever been built on rock-solid main characters -- and Zlatan is about as sturdy as they come. Brash, brilliant and overflowing with bravado, the Swede puts in a performance that smacks, more than a little, of another high-grossing franchise centerpiece: Lightning McQueen from Cars, who also never met a soundbite he couldn't top. (If I told you one of them boasted that he "wanted to give the folks a little sizzle," could you guess which one?)

What works in Zla-La-Land, as it has in the previous iterations of the series, including the last version, 2016's Zlanchester United, is the underlying ambition to say something of substance. Zlatan movies, despite their commercial appeal, have forever tried to be more than just summer blockbuster eye candy.

LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is known just as well for his flair off the field.
LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is known just as well for his flair off the field.

And they are. Sure, the action sequences in Zla-La-Land are -- as always -- remarkable. The arch of Zlatan's back and the whip of his neck as he powers in a header against the Chicago Fire mark the type of sequence that can make even the most jaded film snob appreciate the progress of computer-generated imagery (it looks so real!). But the value here is in restraint.

Both the film's director and its executive producer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic understands that as much as Zla-La-Land is the story of a soccer phenomenon, the bones of the film are an examination of modern fame and the ways one (really, really tall) man shoulders it.

In an interview, Zlatan, who has directed each of the previous episodes in the series, said he tried to keep reminding himself of the defining juxtaposition of Zlatan's character as he determined how to shoot the latest adventure: "He's just a simple guy, father of two children, husband of Helena, happy guy, big heart, emotional, confident and normal," he said. "Just normal."

As a soccer player?

"There is no limits to describe him."

That push-pull -- the feeling that Zlatan wants to be simultaneously generic and extraordinary -- lies at the heart of the film and provides its texture. As per usual, Zlatan's antics (both physically and verbally) are wildly compelling, but there is more here. The softer moments of humanity serve as a tantalizing counter, slowly unspooling Zlatan's real personality in front of our eyes.

Whether he scores or not, Ibrahimovic is still giving LA Galaxy fans a show.
Whether he scores or not, Ibrahimovic is giving LA Galaxy fans a show.

The breadth of the film, too, is comprehensive. It fills in its own origin story, going as far back as when executives from the Galaxy pursue Zlatan even as he suffers a debilitating knee injury with Manchester United. In one particularly charming moment, Zlatan is sitting at dinner with his agent and several Galaxy officials who are concerned about Zlatan's recovery and wonder whether he will be healthy enough to transfer to Los Angeles.

Eager to put them at ease, Zlatan -- wearing jeans and perched in the middle of a classy restaurant -- lifts his leg above the table to nearly face-level, like an oddly-mustachioed flamingo, proving that even while wounded, Zlatan can deliver something special. "It was something you would anticipate from my 6-year-old daughter," deadpans the team's vice president of player personnel, Peter Vagenas. "That's a type of flexibility that most grown men -- even top athletes -- don't have."

The film works mostly chronologically from there, hitting the high points of Zlatan's immersion into Hollywood -- a city that is seemingly made for him. He is hounded by TMZ photographers. He attends a Lakers game. He makes the rounds on the couch circuit, hamming it up with late-night hosts Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden.

When he makes an appearance on ESPN, Zlatan gives his erstwhile interviewer a smile and suggests -- now that Zlatan is on the channel's airwaves -- "Let's make ESPN famous."

In another light, that sort of line might clunk. But as the Galaxy's technical director, Jovan Kirovski, explains, "When he comes out and says the things he says, usually you think, 'I don't like this guy,' but the way he says it somehow makes you like him."

Part of that, naturally, is the context. There have been plenty of movies made about foreign sports stars coming to America, most of which fail to find the sweet spot between likable familiarity and utter cliché. Others miss the mark altogether, such as the basketball flops Finding Darko or Dunked: The Frederic Weis Story. In the soccer genre, the throwback silent film Pirlo's Dummy received immense hype for creativity before its release but was remarkably forgettable once it hit theaters.

Those duds only serve to make the impact of the Zlatan franchise more enduring. Zlatan's quips and one-liners will forever provide a trove of buzzworthy viral moments on social media, and Zla-La-Land delivers another batch of the goods. From the moment Zlatan signs with the Galaxy and takes out an ad in the Los Angeles Times that says, simply, "Dear Los Angeles, You're Welcome," it is clear that Zlatan -- even after stops in Amsterdam and Milan and Barcelona and Paris and Manchester -- still has his silver tongue.

"Just like when they asked my ex-girlfriend what did she get for a present when we were engaged," Zlatan says. "She got me. She doesn't need a present. I am the present."

Ibrahimovic has no illusions about his time in Los Angeles. 'I'm here as long as you think I perform,' he says.
Ibrahimovic says he'll only stay in Los Angeles for as long as everyone wants him there.

Zlatan's rapier wit isn't on display only for the media, either. After nearly every game -- and most notably after the memorable opener -- he pokes fun at the team's president, Chris Klein, rubbing his fingers together in the universal sign for money while making pointed remarks about how the Galaxy got a "Zlatan bargain" and need to pay up.

His teammates get a quick indoctrination, as well: On his first day with the Galaxy, he submits to the standard initiation ritual of running through a gauntlet while the others beat on his back before standing in front of the team and performing a joke. (Never shy, Zlatan seizes the moment, but the content, alas, cannot be repeated here).

The film has its slow points and, at times, can feel as if it lapses into the mundane. Zlatan's take on not participating in the World Cup with Sweden this summer, for example, is straight out of The Athlete's Handbook ("It is impossible to have any regrets") and, for a guy who has lived around the world, he occasionally comes off as oddly detached. ("I don't do politics ... what I do is passionate. Football is one religion.")

The upside to being the bad guy, he continues, is that at least you can be certain what someone thinks of you. Because while someone might tell you they love you but really hate you, no one tells you they hate you without truly feeling that way. 

In an age of omnipresent phoniness, Zlatan says, that is significant. Also, "I make haters become my fans," he says. "So I actually need more haters."

Given the early response to Zla-La-Land, more haters seem unlikely. But this release has prompted another round of speculation about when, exactly, the Zlatan franchise will run its course. The original film, Zlamsterdam, came out in 2001(!), but Zlatan -- somehow -- continues to dazzle, pulling off the trick that all the best sequels achieve: familiarity without repetition, entertainment without pandering.

The ending here? No spoilers, other than to say it's hard to describe. But put simply: Zlatan still has it, whether "it" is a knack for dominating in front of the goal or in front of the cameras. Once either of those goes -- and they go, at some point, for every character -- it is hard to imagine this producer or this director or this leading man pushing hard to keep it all going. The best is the only choice.

Even Zlatan, the character, addresses the future in Zla-La-Land, and his answer -- while quintessentially Hollywood -- seems as good as any.

"I'm here as long as you think I perform," he says. "I don't drag out anything here. Nobody is forced to do anything. It's gentleman's agreement. They don't like me? They don't want me? Arrivederci."

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