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(1999) (Edward Norton, Brad Pitt) (R)

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Drama: Bored, unable to sleep and needing a release, a disillusioned man joins his new anarchist friend in starting an underground fight club that quickly grows in popularity and scope.
"Jack," the film's narrator (EDWARD NORTON), is a disillusioned recall investigator for a major automobile manufacturer. Bored with his Ikea-dominated life and suffering from insomnia, he takes a doctor's advice and begins attending various support group meetings to encounter people who really have problems. At such a group for testicular cancer survivors, he meets Bob Paulsen (MEAT LOAF), a large man with even larger enlarged breasts, and soon finds himself addicted to such meetings for the cathartic release they elicit.

His solution is ruined, however, when he notices that Marla Singer (HELENA BONHAM CARTER), a chain-smoking "tourist," is similarly attending all of the support groups without appropriate need and thus is distracting his attention. They finally agree to split their time at different meetings and each then goes their separate ways.

During this time, Jack continues his car crash investigations by flying across the country, during which he meets Tyler Durden (BRAD PITT), a soap salesman with an interesting philosophy about life, not to mention part-time jobs where he splices pornographic images into family films as a projectionist or spikes served food with body fluids while working as a waiter.

Jack doesn't think much of Tyler until he returns home to find that his condo has blown up. Believing it to be an accident and without any real friends, he calls up Tyler and two get together for several rounds of beers. In the parking lot, Tyler urges Jack to hit him and after reluctantly doing so, the two get into a cathartic fight that changes Jack's life.

Soon Jack moves in with Tyler in his large, dilapidated home and their now weekly fist fights begin drawing crowds of onlookers and then participants. As such, they form a fight club where the rules are that only two men can spar at a given time and no one can mention the club outside their circle.

As Jack begins to accept Tyler's anarchistic philosophy about life and a lack of interest in his possessions or job, others, such as Angel Face (JARED LETO) do the same as well. With their numbers swelling and their activities decidedly becoming more antisocial, Jack begins to wonder if Tyler's going too far. Coupled with Marla now being Tyler's lover, Jack begins to feel more like an outsider and soon finds himself facing interesting and unexpected complications to his new lifestyle.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
For good or bad, and not even attempting to delve into the myriad of societal, biological or cultural reasons for it, many people enjoy watching violence. What else could explain the popularity of "reality shows" like "When Good Pets Go Bad," car races that people attend hoping to see a spectacular crash, first person shoot ‘em up computer and video games such "Doom" and "Duke Nukem," and both the mostly feigned material in professional wrestling and the ultimate form of orchestrated violence, professional boxing.

Of course while the demographics of such people obviously skew to the testosterone-laden side of the fence, most of those viewers don't actually want to participate in violent activity. Instead, they simply seek the cathartic release often associated with such events.

Boxing aside, there is a small portion of humanity that does participate in physically violent acts and such people are generally regarded as sociopathic. Be they vandals, serial killers or those who go on rampages and shoot up post offices or schools, those people obviously feel some sort of need to be violent. Yet the questions that most usually then ponder are what catalysts drive those people to such acts and whether they get a cathartic thrill out of creating such mayhem.

While countless films have used violence for "entertainment" purposes, clearly not as many have used it to examine that issue. One of the more obvious ones was Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." Featuring a gang and its leader who terrorized others, the film may have seemed to glorify violence to some, but in reality was about trying to figure out the answers and/or solutions regarding their behavior.

Now along comes "Fight Club," a film that's certain to be as divisive as "Clockwork." Some will see it as nothing but glorifying violence and trying to juice the adrenaline of the young males who will undoubtedly clamor to see it. Others, particularly many critics, will heap praise on it not only for its artistic sense, but for serving as a catalyst to jump start conversations about violence and its causes.

While the truth lies somewhere in between, there's no doubt that this film by director David Fincher is disturbing, often mesmerizing, occasionally funny and probably unlike anything else you've seen in a long time. Known for his dark and highly stylized films such as "Alien 3," "Seven" and "The Game," Fincher creates a cinematic experience with this film that's as unsettling as the anarchistic characters that appear within it.

Working from first timer Jim Uhls' screenplay (that's based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel of the same name), the director employs voice over narration, politically incorrect humor, idiosyncratic and highly imaginative visual effects & symbolism, the breaking of the fourth wall (where the character directly addresses the camera -- and explains things such as the on-screen markers that indicate it's time to change film reels) and more to his advantage. As a result of this nontraditional storytelling and visual sense, the viewer is never quite sure what to expect at any moment, a point that plays out even better when viewed in hindsight.

In fact, the film is of the type that probably requires multiple viewings -- like "The Game" or the more recent "The Sixth Sense" -- not only to assemble all of the puzzle pieces, but also to better appreciate how the filmmakers have arranged everything. Like those films, this one has an important twist upon which much hangs, but unlike them, its execution probably worked a bit better on paper than as realized on the screen.

Although I won't give away that secret -- and I'm sure some will argue with this point -- I just didn't completely buy into what was revealed, particularly due to some scenes we witness that lead up to and are then explained by that revelation. Instead of having that "knocked your socks off" feeling that some films like "The Sixth Sense" deliver, this one's more likely to elicit the "Huh?" or "Oh, okay, so that's what's happening" response. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad thing or that it derails the film, particularly since there's an earlier scene that sets up and thus softens the twist's blow.

In fact, it's an intriguing and imaginative premise that leads to later, clever developments that are nicely executed. It also explains -- again, in hindsight -- the reason for some of the characters' actions, some odd scenes, and the overabundant voice over narration that, as it occurs, begins to get a bit annoying (until one realizes its purpose).

The film does suffer a bit, however, much like 1998's "Wild Things," by having its unfolding events (such as the main principal here immediately enjoying his first fight) being too distracting to the audience. While they're justified by later events, such moments make the viewer step back and thus out of the proceedings to examine what just occurred, and that's not the greatest thing for a film's flow.

Overall, while the twist and the events not only leading up to it but also then stemming from it are to be applauded for their imaginative creation and deployment, I only wish certain elements of the film had been tweaked just a bit to make everything a little more believable both as they occurred and once the big secret is out.

There's no denying, however, the incredibly strong performances delivered by the film's key characters. While I think that Brad Pitt ("Meet Joe Black," "Seven Years in Tibet") gets a lot of bad flack and wishes for failure from people (including critics) who are simply jealous of his looks and pay no heed to his thespian abilities, this film should immediately dispel such notions.

Although he's rather ripped for his shirtless fight scenes, this is about as far from a glamorous role as one could get and Pitt seems to revel getting into it and squirming around like a porker in a pigsty. Reportedly having his teeth altered specifically for this role, Pitt is nothing short of completely believable and delivers a whacked out performance that's different from, but as good as what he delivered in "Twelve Monkeys."

While Edward Norton ("Primal Fear," "Rounders") isn't the musclebound tough guy that he played in "American History X," this acclaimed actor -- easily one of the best working in film today -- delivers a performance that's just as good as Pitt's. Although his ninety-eight-pound weakling look occasionally strains credibility during the fight sequences (I think Meat Loaf -- who does a decent job with his small role -- could have easily blown him over with a few energetic lines of "Paradise By the Dashboard Light"), Norton plays the role with such strong conviction that you completely buy into what he's selling.

Less convincing is Helena Bonham Carter ("The Wings of the Dove," "Howards End") whose role here and in 1998's "The Theory of Flight" prove she's trying to break free of her period corset and lace stereotyping. The one here will certainly do that, but it's clearly not her best work, although she's not helped by playing an underdeveloped character.

A cinematic cousin to both "A Clockwork Orange" and "Falling Down" (where Michael Douglas' character pops a gasket and goes on a rampage of middle-aged, American frustration after society pushes him too far), this work is an effective dramatic representation -- laced with plenty of cleverly written black humor -- of what constitutes a rip in the social fabric of one's life.

Of course not everyone's going to see -- let alone agree -- with that, and some will probably find the film to be lacking in anything remotely resembling any redeemable qualities. Yet, just as the tag line says for this year's other dark examination of middle-class life turned upside down, "American Beauty," one must not only "look closer" at what the film really is, but also at the points it's making about our everyday life.

With the world becoming a crazier and more dangerous place every day, where seemingly normal people become unhinged and join cults or mow down others, it's probably a good thing for films like these to come along, shake things up a bit, and get people talking about the issues.

Although clearly not for everyone's tastes, this picture is an impressive piece of filmmaking despite some problems in the way certain key elements are presented in relation to the ending. Once that twist is revealed, the end credits have rolled and you're on your way home, however, the film's myriad of plot developments, visual theatrics and characterizations will begin to make sense.

While all of that might not add up in a completely credible fashion for everyone, you'll begin to appreciate the filmmakers' cinematic efforts of making a thinking person's picture disguised as a superficial violent flick. Not perfect, but clearly a film that will stick with you for a while after viewing it, this is an impressive fourth outing for director David Fincher. As such, "Fight Club" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 7, 1999 / Posted October 15, 1999

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