As if there isn’t enough chatter/controversy surrounding concussions in hockey and football these days, the boxing arena has taken centre stage for a number of cinematic bouts—especially with the emergence of UFC/MMA extravaganzas in North America (cross references below).
In Gavin O’Connor’s hands (with co-writers Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman also in his corner) the few-holds-barred matches are certainly the main event: subtle characterization and deep back-story are not wanted on this two-fisted voyage of the Conlon family.
In classic narrative style, the patriarch, (Nick Nolte in a solid outing that begins with real promise—drinking coffee and reading John Steinbeck, quoting from Moby Dick no less—before he’s pushed back far beyond the ropes) is nearing his 1000th day of sobriety only to be offered a home-coming gift of scotch from his recently returned son, Tommy. Tom Hardy has gone to considerable lengths to “muscle up” for the physically demanding part, leaving no doubt that his tattooed physique could readily knockout all comers. What’s left too much off screen is his troubled past in Iraq and deep resentment for his recovering dad. Nonetheless, Tommy selfishly demands to be rigorously trained by the man who gave him life, little realizing that the five-million dollar fight to come would bring all things familial to a head. Lines such as “I think I liked you better when you were a drunk” paint a truly pathetic portrait of father and son alike.
Meanwhile, in another part of Philadelphia, ex-fighter now physics teacher Brendan Conlon has mortgage foreclosure problems. Like so many others who have over-bought during the lead up to the financial eruption of the century, Brendan (Joel Edgerton, also in top shape for the journey ahead) is at wits end to keep his castle, wife (Jennifer Morrison is shackled with one-dimensional lines and attitudes) and three daughters (one of whom has expensive especial needs of her own) face ruin unless something can be done soon. Before you can say “easy cash with no receipts,” Brendan is back cracking heads but just as suddenly out of a job. Trying to teach impressionable high school students about the mysteries of the universe with a face that has been brutally pummeled quickly draws the ire of the school’s superintendent. Principal Zito (Kevin Dunn is an admirable cheerleader in the closing scenes) tries to assuage the uncaring bureaucrat but has no luck: his bruised warrior is suspended without pay (adding to the financial angst but flying in the face of teachers’ unions everywhere).
The film sprints its way towards the climax where from a 16-man field one will emerge champion after two days of winner-take-all eliminations: Who wouldn’t risk death, dismemberment or humiliation for a payout that ensures financial security forever? Using real-life personalities and fighters along with the stars, these desperate encounters are easily the highlight of the production. The camera work and editing are marvels unto themselves. The atmosphere gets a little cheesy with a platoon of Marines in the stands cheering one of their own, while Brendan’s students have come up with a big screen solution “off campus” so that they too can fight vicariously alongside Mr. C. as be battles for his life a few hundred miles away.
While the silent Steinbeck and recited Melville add a touch of class to Nolte’s character the “re-working” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the “Ode to Joy” yet again …) verges on artistic criminality in its vain attempt to underscore greatness and triumph. Its trite arrangement laughs in the face of art and serves no dramatic purpose for the majority of viewers than a moment of “Oh yes, I know that’s Beethoven.”
Nonetheless, those who enjoy multiple doses of physical beatings won’t want to miss a single punch; for the rest there are probably other entertainments that could more satisfyingly fill the void for a familial tale of redemption that fires on all cylinders. JWR