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Wednesday, May 23, 2001
K.O. punch from the heart
By KAORI SHOJI
The only regret of seeing "Girlfight" is that it wasn't made two years earlier. Then it could have been released along with "Fight Club," and think of the effect the pair would have made.
"Fight Club" was a movie aimed directly at the male fighting instinct. All the guys I knew came out of the theater with an irrepressible urge to hit someone, anyone but preferably the Unbearable Boss on the 29th floor or something. One of them actually signed up for karate lessons. "Girlfight" targets an even broader audience: men, women, those pissed off, those in love, those out of love . . it doesn't matter. You're still going to come out of the theater with an irrepressible urge to hit someone. It's fun to imagine the two pictures being released side by side and the sudden rapid increase in the number of bloody noses, dents in phone poles, people going at each other with taped knuckles as bystanders yell and cheer.
This is what "Girlfight" tells us: Violence, in terms of Tarantino-esque guys in designer suits going through ammunition like M&Ms, is, like, so totally passe. The new violence decrees "no weapons." Just a scantily clad body (ribbed tank tops, please), glistening forearms and scarred fists.
And, of course, women are just as turned on by violence as men, and that's one of the points writer/director Karyn Kusama makes so successfully in this, her debut feature. Kusama, who started her career as assistant director to John Sayles, was going to a Brooklyn boxing gym to work out and unwind. To her surprise, a lot of Latinas were punching the sandbags, and they weren't just there to get into shape. Many of them were training as professionals.
Kusama was fascinated, then hooked. Boxing had taught her the sheer adrenaline thrill of being inside a ring. She could identify with the joy and release of throwing a left hook into someone's jaw. These women were willing to take that even further, to invest their lives and make fighting their raison d'e^tre. Kusama reincarnates their fever onscreen, without subtracting anything from the underlying grace and stylishness of boxing.
"Girlfight" also belongs to Michelle Rodriguez, who plays the main protagonist and who herself underwent five months of boxing training for this part. Rodriguez was handpicked by Kusama out of hundreds of auditioners and redefines the word "sexy" with one good jab to the rib.
The opening scene shows her standing against a brick wall of her high school as classmates hurry by. She stands very still with her face down, and as the camera closes in, only her eyes look up and stare. And the way she does this prepares you for what's coming: rebellion, pain, sweat and more sweat. And a right. And a left. And the cross-punch that comes out of nowhere like a midnight train and catches the opponent clean on the side of the temple.
Diana (Rodriguez) is an 18-year-old with a bad school record. She can't stay out of fights, and she resents the hell of her home life in a Queens housing project. Dad (Paul Calderon) is willing to pay for boxing lessons for her brother "Tiny" (Ray Santiago), since he thinks boys should know how to fight and prepare for the world. But he ignores his daughter, who is clearly the real fighter in the family. Diana realizes this as soon as she meets Tiny's coach, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), at the gym. She is immediately overpowered by the desire to box and finally convinces Hector that girls can be just as good as boys.
Diana's training begins, a grueling all-pain, little-gain program that boxers must endure if they are going into the ring at all. In such an environment, Diana blossoms. For the first time in her life, she feels truly comfortable and completely in tune. And the better she gets, the more she wants.
Ultimately, this is to become a professional and compete in gender-blind tournaments. And it's OK for her if she is to get in the ring with fellow boxer-cum-heartthrob Adrian (Santiago Douglas). Adrian, for his part, is full of misgivings. He doesn't want to hit her, but then he can't permit himself to lose. Diana is liberated from such hangups. She's a boxer. He's a boxer. They should "just fight" because that's what boxing is about, neither more or less. During the match, he's the one dancing all over the floor and she's the one to land the punches.
"Girlfight" is a sign of the times: These days, women depicting or expressing violence is definitely in vogue. From "Charlie's Angels" to "Baise-moi," the old gender geography of men as aggressive apes and women as nurturing mothers are eroding beneath our feet. And so are the old standards of feminine sexuality. Personally, the most effective punch in the film comes from the scene when Adrian looks at a guy with long hair, big shoulders and an army jacket and mistakes him for the lovely Diana. The great thing is: This mistake is what accelerates his affection for her. As they say about boxing, it's the subtle blows that get to you most.