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(2000) (Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli) (R)

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Drama: A quick-tempered young woman faces various obstacles and complications when she takes up boxing as a way of releasing her pent-up frustration and anger.
Diana Guzman (MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ) is a quick-tempered, high school senior who's facing suspension if she gets into one more fight at school. With her only friend being another classmate, Marisol (ELISA BOCANEGRA), and living in some Brooklyn projects with her dismissive father, Sandro (PAUL CALDERON) -- who doesn't think she's feminine enough -- and her younger brother, Tiny (RAY SANTIAGO), Diane doesn't see much of a bright future for herself.

That changes while running an errand for her father to a local boxing gym where it turns out Tiny's taking lessons from Hector (JAIME TIRELLI), a seasoned coach. When she decks Ray (VICTOR SIERRA), another boxer who was picking on Tiny, she suddenly realizes she's found her niche.

Stealing money from her father's dresser drawer and swearing Tiny to secrecy, Diane begins taking lessons with Hector, although her lack of skill and control initially frustrates her. Nonetheless, after weeks of training, she becomes quite good, wanting to have her first fight, and proves to be a formidable competitor.

When her friendship with fellow boxer and potential opponent, Adrian (SANTIAGO DOUGLAS), turns into something more substantial, however, Diana finds herself torn between her love of boxing and her newfound more feminine side, and must figure out what to do next.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
While various individual sports have been fodder for films over the years, one of the more popular and most used ones has been boxing. Of course, that's due to the inherent, one on one competition and the extreme physical nature of the contest.

However, since most such films pretty much follow the same trajectory of their protagonists overcoming various obstacles while training to get to the big match that usually concludes the story, they've begun to feel as if they've been done to death, with any semblances of originality having been pummeled out of them through sheer repetition.

Although there have been plenty of good and/or rousing entries over the years ("Rocky," "Raging Bull"), there have also been plenty of mediocre or bad ones of recent (such as "Price of Glory" and "Play It To The Bone"). Thus, upon hearing that another boxing film is coming out, one question is likely to come to mind. Okay, there are actually two, with the first being "Why?" and the second asking, "What could it possibly contain that we haven't seen a gazillion times before?"

Well, how about the protagonist being an 18-year-old high school student who becomes romantically involved with a male boxer she might have to fight? Yes, that was "she" and that's the underlying gist of "Girlfight," the engaging writing and directorial debut of Karyn Kusama.

While her accomplished film follows the standard boxing plot path of a would-be fighter overcoming internal and external conflicts and a poor and dissatisfied upbringing and life, Kusama manages to infuse the proceedings with enough vitality that you can't help but end up cheering for both the film and its protagonist to succeed. That's even if the latter is female and the former doesn't entirely posses the carefully calculated building of momentum or rousing score commonly found in the "Rocky" type films.

To make such a film both credible and appealing, the protagonist obviously had better possess those same qualities as well. Kusama gets that and more out of first-time actress Michelle Rodriguez. With one of the most menacing stares to come down the pike since Vincent D'Onofrio in "Full Metal Jacket" and Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange," Rodriguez believably plays the troubled teen as a character you wouldn't want to encounter in some dark alley.

She then credibly portrays such a young woman finding an outlet for her violent and aggressive tendencies and then dealing with the various obstacles and conflicts that stand in her way of training and becoming a proficient, competitive contender. In doing so and in essence becoming a tougher young woman, she also begins to shine and become more radiant in direct proportion to that.

Both Rodriguez and Kusama nicely handle that symbolic transition (somewhat similar to Dustin Hoffman's character saying in "Tootsie" that he was a better man as a woman than he ever was as a man), thus causing us to sympathize with and root that much more for Diana's success. Of course, along the way, there must be inner and external obstacles to her goal, both in and out of the ring - since there wouldn't be much drama without them -- and Kusama ably delivers both the stereotypical and unique variety.

As is the case with most underdog-based, boxing films, the fighter must primarily overcome their station in life (they're usually poor) as well as lingering self-doubts about whether they could actually succeed and thus achieve their goals. There's also the whole bit about family members, significant others and/or friends who don't initially believe and/or support their effort. While we've seen some or all of that before in such films, it's fortunate that none of it feels stale or repetitious as conceived and then executed here.

What we haven't seen that often - or at all - is the fighter who falls in love with another person who may eventually become a future opponent. Although in most cases concerning boxing that would necessitate a homosexual angle, the relationship here is obviously female/male, and adds all sorts of interesting conflict, unusual ramifications and overall drama to the standard rounds in and out of the ring.

For instance, the viewer will likely ponder whether Diana will ultimately fight her boyfriend and thus potentially tear up his self-proclaimed ticket out of the projects. Then there's the issue of whether that boyfriend will fight her and thus face a dual-edged sword - if he wins or loses, he would be doing so against a woman and have to face the public and professional reaction to that. Finally, the biggest question is whether the two lovers will be able to bring themselves to fight each other - with vicious, full-impact blows - and preserve their relationship and still feel the same way about each other afterwards.

While all of that could come off as silly, preposterous and/or melodramatic in the wrong hands - especially if both the characters and overall story were taken in the wrong direction - it manages to work here, and is both credible and heartfelt at that.

Beyond the wonderful performance from Rodriguez, the rest of the performances are also quite good. As that boyfriend/potential competitor, Santiago Douglas (TV's "The Sopranos" and "Law and Order") is entirely credible and, for the most part, avoids the stereotypical trapping of such a role, creating a character we similarly like and hope will stick with Diana.

The same can be said for Jaime Tirelli ("A Simple Wish," "The Preacher's Wife") who plays Diana's coach. While we've all repeatedly seen the older, world-weary coach practicing his trade out of a rundown gym, Tirelli brings enough realistic nuances to his character that he manages to avoid the usual trappings associated with such a role. Supporting performances from the likes of Paul Calderon ("Out of Sight," "Copland") and Ray Santiago (making his feature film debut) are also solid.

Although some may not like the thought of women in the ring - whether in real life or the movies - for everyone else this film and the performance from its lead actress are remarkable finds, particularly considering their lack of individual or collective cinematic experience. Completing engaging and certainly an audience pleaser, "Girlfight" might not prove to be a knockout at the box office, but it certainly goes the distance and is a winner in its own right. We give the film a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 30, 2000 / Posted September 29, 2000

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