Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In the Ring: Warrior VS The Fighter

What the hell is a "Rocky?"
ROCKY has undoubtedly come to be perceived in popular culture as the archetypal boxing movie.  In fact whenever anybody mentions the words "boxing" and "movie" in the same sentence he is usually directly or indirectly conjuring up associations with ROCKY in his audience, unless of course the sentence is something like "I was pounding her pussy like a one-legged Argentinian and a shaved gorilla in three foot boxing ring and filming the whole thing so I could post the movie on YouTube in time for her birthday."  But otherwise, you're probably in some way referencing ROCKY and/or comparing another boxing film to ROCKY.

This is complicated and confusing and unhelpful for several reasons.  First, while ROCKY was a great film and a film that I thoroughly enjoy, it was not strictly speaking the best boxing film ever made.  While that title is fairly arbitrary, I think that it could be reasonably argued in a court of law that RAGING BULL was a superior movie in almost every conceivable way.  RAGING BULL is a more complexly layered, better acted, better filmed character study than ROCKY could ever hope to be.  Unlike RAGING BULL, ROCKY also contains some of the most ridiculously choreographed fights ever to appear on film (except, of course, for its five totally unnecessary yet completely entertaining sequels).  Anybody who a) watches boxing or MMA or any martial art that contains striking b) who has ever been in a fight themselves or c) knows the slightest about basic concepts of physics will immediately recognize that the fighting style employed by both Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed is completely ridiculous (people in the fighting world would refer to it as "stupid") and in the real world would lead to one of the quickest and least interesting fights in all of history.

I'm talking of course about the tendency of boxers in the ROCKYverse not to defend themselves or block any shots at all, especially to their heads.  I know part of the whole mythology of Rocky is that he has an iron jaw and can take all kinds of punishment, yadda, yadda, yadda, but every once in a while the total absurdity of simply letting another full-grown, testosterone-filled human being hit you in the head without trying to defend yourself or dodge in the slightest kind of slaps you upside the head.  I don't care how tough you are, there is not a man or woman alive on the planet, no matter how tough his or her jaw was, would not either go down or start to feel his/her legs buckle after five or six completely unguarded shots to the old cranium.  This kind of illogical approach to fighting is even more apparent in the even more absurd fight at the end of ROCKY V when Rocky and Tommy Gunn when they have a bare knuckle brawl employing the exact same strategy of pure offence with absolutely no sign of even thinking about defence.  OK, even if I conceded that in the ring with boxing gloves employing Rocky's No-Block school of fighting the toughest fighter in the history of the world might last at the most one round, maybe two or three if he was one tough motherfucker, but in a back alley pounding each other bare handed this style will get you knocked out in seconds.  You can't just keep moving forward with your chin stuck out.  Being hit with a bare fist packs a lot more wallop than getting pounded with a set of gloves.  Believe me, I know, I've experienced both and bare hands inflict a lot more damage per blow. (That's what she said.)  Especially if you come up on somebody's chin, at the very least his legs are going to start to give way.

Even with all that said, I still love watching ROCKY and get pumped every single time I see it and all that shit that I just went on about doesn't really matter at all or really take anything away from the movie or its sequels.

This kind of (in a very roundabout way) leads me to the second reason why comparisons to ROCKY as the archetypal boxing movie are generally confusing and unhelpful.  As an example I will use my example of comparing ROCKY to RAGING BULL.  While I did this to emphasize a point, the comparison is fairly useless because ROCKY and RAGING BULL are two very different types of movies.  While both employ the boxing world as a backdrop to explore the lives of the protagonists, I think the similarities really end there.  RAGING BULL is an intense, some might say brooding, film about a very flawed protagonist with a great gift who squandered his personal relationships fucked up his life and hit rock bottom.  ROCKY is naively hopeful tale of a nobody given a shot at greatness, succeeding only in winning a personal, moral victory.  ROCKY is less about boxing and more about the narrative of the perseverent underdog.  And that's where the problem comes when comparing all boxing movies to ROCKY.

All boxing movies are not all boxing movies.  People wrongly compare them in the simplest of terms ie. that the protagonist is somehow engaged in the sport of boxing.  This is a very weak comparison.  You can't reasonably compare on any fundamental level movies like ROCKY and THE BOXER or ROCKY and MILLION DOLLAR BABY.  Or at least you can't try to evaluate them within the archetypal framework of ROCKY.  ROCKY is not a narrative about boxing, it's a narrative about the underdog.  Now for fairly obvious narrative reasons the rhetoric of the underdog lends itself especially well to the boxing movie genre, but really the main archetype that Rocky Balboa represents is not The Ultimate Warrior but The Unlikely, Well-Deserved Victor.  In this way ROCKY has more in common genetically with narratives about  any person or group who was not favoured to win a particular competition but who overcomes the odds and is able to transcend what everybody thought was important, always by proving some form of superior character (ie. courage, perseverence, etc.) and earning respect from the people who had previously scorned him, and only sometimes is this accomplished by actually succeeding in the given field.  In this way ROCKY has more in common with COOL RUNNINGS or A FEW GOOD MEN or even GATTACA than with RAGING BULL.

This brings me to something I've been wanting to get off my chest for a while.  I need to explain one of the core piss-offs of the underdog narratives, one of its central tropes, the conceptualization that at the same time as it almost completely destroys the willing suspension of disbelief and the enjoyability of the narrative is also at least in some small way necessary to its function.  What I'm referring to is the characterization of the champion in the underdog narrative.

You see, in order for there to be a narrative that centers around the Underdog as the protagonist this by necessity means that there needs to be a Champion established as the antagonist.  The Champion is of utmost importance in the underdog narrative because this antagonist represents the ultimate obstacle that stands between the underdog and his victory.  In order for this to work on an emotional level, the Champion must be everything the Underdog is not.  The Champion has to be the absolute best at whatever it is he does, and not just the best but he has to be considered as virtually unbeatable by everybody else in the world of that particular narrative.  If the Underdog must be portrayed as down on his luck, depressed, and full of potential then the Champion is shown to be on top of the world, self-fulfilled and fully realized in his potential, so much so that he borders on becoming deified; the Underdog is a mere mortal but the Champion is virtually a god.  Part of what makes the underdog narrative so compelling is the fact that the apparently invincible can still be defeated by the vincible.  The longer the shot for the Underdog to become successful the greater the emotional payoff for the audience when he triumphs over the Champion (or so conventional wisdom holds).  

The most important characteristic that divides the Underdog and the Champion, and where the whole thing really falls apart for me is humility.  The Underdog is almost always portrayed as the humble, hard-working everyman in contrast to the Champion who almost always comes across as a pompous, arrogant, proud asshole who has come to believe in his own press and his own invincibility.  The Champion is almost universally demonized and turned into some inhuman creature to be slain by the tragic Greek hero.  In contrast to the Underdog, the defining characteristic that defines the Champion is hubris, again the theory goes something like the more of an arrogant dickhead the Champion is the greater the emotional payoff for the audience when he is beaten by the Underdog (or so conventional wisdom holds).

But to me this seems like a very ineffective narrative device.  Not only does it turn (what should be) a central character in the narrative into a one-dimensional archetypal cardboard cutout, it almost completely negates the victory of the Underdog himself.  Following the logic of the underdog narrative it goes something like this:

1) The Champion must be a total asshat
2) The Underdog triumphs over the Champion
3) The Underdog becomes the new Champion and since the Champion is always a douchebag,
4) The Underdog becomes the new Asshole and you -the audience- have just spent the last two hours cheering for an asshole.

When the realization hits you that by emotionally siding with the Underdog what you were really cheering for wasn't the Underdog becoming a Champion, but for his (eventual) transformation into a totally despicable, reprehensible human being who bites the ears off his opponents, rapes random women or runs an illegal dog-fighting ring.  You were silently cheering for evil to ultimately triumph.  And that's always why secretly you always wanted Luke to turn to the dark side at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  It's also the fundamental flaw with the underdog narrative.

But why?  Why does the Champion have to be an arrogant, undefeatable prick and an unconscionable bastard?  Why can't filmmakers (or writers) tell a story that fleshes out the characters on both sides of a competition?  Why can't I feel sympathy for "the villain"?  It worked in STAR WARS.  Is it supposed to be some kind of ironic reversal?  Is the Champion supposed to learn humility and then become a better person?  Is his fall supposed to be some kind of philosophical, humanizing triumph?  Is he really the character, then, that we should have been cheering for all along?

I don't know, it's just bugs me that we're intrinsically supposed to agree with the whole Fuck the Guy on Top paradigm.  Apparently, if you're successful you are by necessity an asshole?  Have all champions since the beginning of time all really been assholes?  Yeah, fuck you Abraham Lincoln.

So what the hell was the point of all this again?  Oh yeah, THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR.  You have to think of these two movies out of the context of ROCKY.  Or at least, partially.  The common thread amongst these movies isn't the boxing (or MMA fighting -which is increasingly supplanting boxing in the modern Hollywood fighting narrative-  in the case of WARRIOR); it's the narrative of the underdog.  But that's about where the similarity between these movies ends.

Let's go through a brief blow by blow of THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR, and then I'll tell you why they're both fucking awesome.  The big thing to keep in mind is that, ultimately, these are stories about the relationships between brothers.  In both movies the fighting is a storytelling device to explore the relationship between two grown men who couldn't legally fuck each other even if they wanted to (Not saying that they would want to, I was just making a statement about the authority of the government to decide who you can and cannot fuck or even marry.  Think about it.).  They're both giant sausage/love fests, except instead of sitting around talking about their emotions, and crying on each other's shoulders, and having naked pillow fights, and eating ice cream, and crying some more, and maybe even making out a little... Sorry, where was I  Oh yeah, the pairs of brothers portrayed in THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR work out their problems like real men: by pummeling something with their bare fists.  Preferably something living, and preferably something with a face.

Fighting is a great metaphor for the tumultuous storm of emotions raging inside a testosterone-packed man because it's not really a metaphor at all; physical violence is the default and only mode men have of dealing with their emotions.  See, the way men deal with emotions (read: the right way) is to bottle them all way down inside, drown them in alcohol, until you get to that comfortably numb rut known as Day to Day Life.  Then when some shit disturbs the balance, all of those emotions come flooding out like if somebody released an emotional dam, and then those manly emotions manifest themselves in violence.  If nobody is around then that violence will be wasted on inanimate objects like TVs, dishwashers, priceless Ming vases, family heirlooms of various varieties, and/or the family car.  While it certainly is satisfying to watch your TV explode into a thousand, sparkling shards in the middle of your driveway, it's still not as good as it gets.  No, the ultimate satisfaction comes if there is another red-blooded male around, especially if he is the one who caused you to lose your shit in the first place, or just some asshole you don't like (read: 90% of the population).  It's infinitely more satisfying watching the face of your opponent explode as you ram your bruised and broken knuckles repeatedly into his skull and having to wring out your blood-stained clothes afterwards.  It's a lot more satisfying asserting your dominance over something that can fight back (but also who is preferably slightly more out of shape than you).  If you're a chick this may sound horrible, but this is the proper way for normally adjusted human males to settle disputes with each other.  Anything else would be uncivilized (10 bonus points for anybody who can tell me what the hell that's from.).

THE FIGHTER, starring Christian Bale, follows the "true" story of world famous boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older brother Dicky Eklund (Bale) as Micky overcomes adversity and becomes the world middle weight (or light heavy, I can't fucking remember) boxing champion and fucks Amy Adams along the way.  Micky has to contend not only with getting out from under his older brother's shadow (whose boxing claim to fame consisted of once knocking down (but not out) Sugar Ray Leonard), but also his white trash family, especially his domineering mother/manager who keeps making disastrous, short-sighted decisions.  On top of that is Dicky's crack problem, which winds both he and Micky in trouble with the law.  When watching THE FIGHTER I suddenly realized how much I hate white people.  Micky's family is depicted as about as white trash as you can get, and one of the main complaints I had about the movie were that Micky's six or seven sisters were so white trash that they became caricatures as opposed to characters and derailed the tone of the movie.

WARRIOR stars Tom "Bane" Hardy and Joel "Uncle Owen" Edgerton as two estranged brothers with a penchant for mixed martial arts.  Hardy plays Tommy, the badass younger ex-marine with anger management issues and Edgerton portrays Brendan the ex-MMA fighter turned high school math teacher struggling to pay the medical bills for his rarely-seen yet critically-ill daughter and occasionally fucking Jennifer Morrison.  Nick Nolte gives perhaps the performance of his lifetime as the father of these two brothers, a reformed alcoholic trying desperately to make up for the sins of his past and reconcile with his estranged sons whose only common ground is their dislike of him.  Once again, another example of how fucked up white folks are.  Basically the premise of the movie that causes shit to come to a head is the Spartan MMA tournament funded by some rich white guy to "find out who the toughest guy in the world is."  Even if all you've seen is the movie posters, you're almost certain that the finale will involve the two brothers, each fighting for his own noble cause.

So how great are these movies?  Pretty fucking.  Both THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR deliver on so many levels:

1) Talent: THE FIGHTER brings us Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo (for which she one an Oscar, for whatever that's worth these days) while WARRIOR shares with the world Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Morrison.  Everybody wins.

2) THE FIGHTER has the hotness of Amy Adams and the see through bra and WARRIOR has the hotness of Jennifer Morrison and her great ass in a pair of perfectly fit underwear (you know the scene I mean).  Everybody wins (but especially straight men and lesbians).  (I had no idea when she was on House how hot Morrison actually was.)

3) THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR both had a great story with a lot of touching and/or emotional moments that really engaged the audience.

4) THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR both bring on the action when necessary and even though you're pretty sure what the outcomes of the big fights in both films are going to be, you're still emotionally invested enough to give a shit.

5)  THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR both really nail the emotionally poignant take on brother-brother relationship, and the key demographic for both movies is made pretty clear from the get-go.  If you're a dude with a brother these movies will probably be more emotionally accessible to you, but they're well written enough that the themes will be engaging enough for viewers of all ages and persuasions.  As both sets of brothers exercise their demons it's pretty hard not to be moved (especially in WARRIOR when Tommy finally taps out to love.  You just been SPOILED!)

6)  Most importantly to our previous discussion of all the underdog narrative from before is that not only can THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR not be effectively compared directly to other boxing/fighting movies, but they also resist the underdog trope that is at the heart of ROCKY and all of his thrilling sequels.  Both movies are ostensibly about underdog characters in some way, but that's not really the focus.  Neither THE FIGHTER or WARRIOR is a "new ROCKY", and that's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.  It's just  a thing.

As I've already pointed out (and will continue to point out) both of these movies are really about reconciling familial relationships, especially those of the brotherly persuasion.  THE FIGHTER is not really an underdog story because the main character Micky Ward doesn't really fit the criteria.  As outlined above the underdog cannot start off as an asshole, but Ward is definitely portrayed as kind of a dickhead.  He's this white trash boxer with a kid he barely sees (or references after the first twenty minutes of the movie) who consistently gets drawn into his family's shit.  Ward is portrayed fairly sympathetically, but in the movie he consistently makes bad decisions, and the final fight between Micky and Shea Neary is less about the face off between the fighters in the ring and more about Ward unleashing all of his pent up emotional shit between him and his brother on the opponent.  The significant thing isn't the win; it's the fact that the two brothers were able to reconcile and work together.

WARRIOR came the closest I've ever seen to solving my Underdog/Champion conundrum by getting the audience emotionally invested in both fighters in the final showdown.  (Plus there's the visceral enjoyment of watching grown men beating the shit out of each other on film.)  Because you get to follow both of the characters who make it to the final showdown you become emotionally invested in both of them, even though there's a slight imbalance and you're kind of given clues as to who to cheer for.  Still, I think the film wouldn't have been emotionally any less poignant or significant had the fight gone the other way.  The point is WARRIOR is not really an underdog narrative because the final fight is a fight between two supposed underdogs, which means that there were no sub-canine proclivities whatsoever.

One way they do compare to ROCKY is that they are both awesome.  I don't know if it's just because I'm getting older and set in my ways, but ROCKY still edges them out slightly, but only slightly.  There's a certain tendency in movies these days to wink at the audience, but not expertly like Kevin Smith did in JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK.  Either way, both THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR quickly found a place in my heart and my collection and I'd highly recommend watching either of them over and over again for a week straight, just because.  I give THE FIGHTER and WARRIOR both a 9/10 = Two Highly Trained Athletes Beating Each Other Senseless For The Amusement of Lesser Men


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