For boxing fans Fighting film kicks ass

Boxing is the most cinematic of sports. It’s brutal and exquisitely violent balletic and graceful in execution. A boxer’s body in motion is made for the camera with slow-motion blood splatter and flying globules of sweat set against lightning-fast feet and fists.

Director Damian Lee clearly has affection for the sport and A Fighting Man has an epic grandeur when it isn’t caught up with rote plot details endemic to sports stories. This is a pretty simple tale of redemption and honour; the usual twin concerns of sports movies. There are lengthy scenes agonizing over past hurts and grudges with pointed on-the-nose dialogue. It’d be a dour maudlin affair if not for the talent involved which buoys it above its stereotypical trappings. Sailor (Dominic Purcell) is a past-his-prime retired boxer whose civilian life just doesn’t give him the same sort of thrills. Or the same kind of cash — when the film opens Sailor has just found out his Irish ex-pat mom is dying of cancer and he wants to give her one last trip back to the old country.

A slick and shady promoter (Adam Beach) gives Sailor a deal he can’t refuse challenging a young and brash whippersnapper King (Izaak Smith) for a hefty payday. (Well if four grand is worth risking your brains for; we’re not talking Vegas millions here.) King has his own reasons for hopping in the ring other than going all Ivan Drago on Sailor’s ass; he’s trying to raise some quick coin to support his young baby mama-to-be.

Sailor enlists the aid of his old coach (James Caan) who’s reluctant to see his student and friend risk his life for one last fight. See Sailor was never a good boxer but he could take a serious beating. Sailor never knew when to quit and his coach is sure another fight will kill him. Caan is joined by a stoic Michael Ironside and a cast of other assorted knuckleheads the sort who have an utter undying devotion to Ireland; a country most of them have never visited.

King in turn courts the favour of his coach (Louis Gossett Jr. having a lot of fun with his snappy and be-smirked role). Everyone’s gruff and adorned in sweatpants. The film spends a lot of time on locker room monologues tinkering with business acumen and political intrigue the sort of gladiatorial bravado that drives fans to a frenzied froth and alienates anyone else.

Purcell offers a rather leaden performance though his stoic solid-as-granite persona suits this kind of character the athlete who excises everything from their life that isn’t dedicated to sport and the pursuit of winning. The rest of the cast are uniformly good including Kim Coates (far from his role as a psychotic biker in Sons of Anarchy ) as a thoughtful preacher who acts as Sailor’s counsellor and confessor. The film makes the most of everyone except as one might expect the women — characters like Famke Janssen’s haunted ex-con and King’s teenaged girlfriend don’t register much beyond mechanized cogs in the film’s plot.

The film is at its best in its early scenes where it most skillfully exploits the sort of floating consciousness between past and present that comes to dominate the film. The rest is a collage of rigorous training fighting in the ring and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. Director Damian Lee keeps the camera close and intimate emphasizing the pain and desperation of everyone involved.

A Fighting Man is more nihilistic and grim than you’d expect an over-serious morality tale that’s seemingly bereft of any real moral. Unless I suppose a stubborn pursuit and acceptance of blinding pain is considered character building. It’s a more interesting proposition and hook for a film than you’d think. Sports movies — god bless ’em.

A FIGHTING MAN directed by Damian Lee starring Dominic Purcell Kim Coates Famke Jannsen and James Caan