Film Reviews

Pretty Pugilist

Ah, boxing. Beating and being beaten about the head and torso until one of two bruised and bloodied humans drops. Clever sport. Tops even American football for sheer poetic elegance. So it's not surprising -- and this is only half sarcastic -- that so many fine films have been made about it. If we're lucky the punching is accompanied by some sort of message about underdogs and emotional victories. And on display: the wondrous sight of people hurting each other very badly for no discernible reason. What cinematographer in his or her right mind wouldn't leap at the chance to capture a geyser of slow-motion blood and spittle exploding from a pummeled jaw?

In this case the jaw is a bit more petite, but that shot, those themes, and many more familiar riffs are on offer in Knockout, a tale of ringside feminism and family valor directed and cowritten by Lorenzo Doumani, who produced The Cotton Club. Although it attempts to equate itself with Rocky (somewhat), Champion (hardly), and Raging Bull (in a pig's eye), this hopeful movie has much more in common with the Karate Kid sequel that launched Hillary Swank's career. The obvious formula: Young woman with taut abdomen goes to battle in traditionally male arena to enhance self-esteem. But in all fairness, the subtext here is actually richer than the peculiarly one-sided boxing matches that propel the story.

"I think he might wonder what it might be like to be a champion," sighs Carmen Alvarado (Maria Conchita Alonso) to her nine-year-old daughter, Isabelle (Brittany Parkyn). Family man Chuck (Tony Plana) gave up his successful boxing career for a police beat on the mean streets of East Los Angeles. Although he forgets his own wedding anniversary, he's never forgotten his love of fighting, which, for purposes of self-protection, he shares with his enthusiastic daughter. Cut to the present (or perhaps the '80s, if you do the math, since they're listening to an Ali-Frazier fight in the first of the maudlin flashbacks), and Mom is gone, Dad is shaking heroically through the graveyard shift, and mid-twenties Belle (Sophia-Adella Hernandez, making an impressive feature debut) is a dance instructor for senior citizens, cavorting beneath a banner that instructs: "LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE."

There's our greeting card theme for the duration, and we get it several more times throughout. For instance Carmen explains to her daughter, "We shouldn't have to give up the thing we love, to be with the one we love. Let your light shine." Much later, spirit guides appear (naturally in a hokey, shining light) to propel Belle toward victory. And at the end we're treated to a sappy ballad named after the inescapable phrase. Alas this simple and direct message is as redundant and irksome as it is sincere.

The plot is functional. Chuck's young partner on the force, Mario (Eduardo Yañez) has feelings for Belle, and the stoic, good-hearted lug helps train her. When her "homegirl" and sparring partner Sandra Lopez (Gina La Piana) is toppled into a coma by the beastly Tanya "Terminator" Tessaro (Fredia Gibbs), Belle decides to train for real, to avenge her friend but especially to win the belt (and pride) her father never scored. On this quest she meets many challenges, especially in the form of seedy and manipulative management, via weaselly Michael DeMarco (William McNamara) and cigar-and-oxygen-sucking veteran promoter Ron Regent (Paul Winfield, who's excellent). Confined to a wheelchair, Regent greets Belle's declaration of boxerhood by quipping, "I run track." However, after observing her gift for bludgeoning other women's faces, Regent is not only convinced but also itching to promote her, under the dubious moniker "The Ragin' Cajun," in a bout for the belt against the Terminator.

Cribbing from Stallone's (ethnically accurate) "Italian Stallion," that nickname's one of many gender-swapped Rocky knockoffs in Knockout, which may as well be called Gonna Shine Now. However, here the bellicose inner-city urchin is slightly less underprivileged, significantly more articulate, and very probably taller than Sly. Also, during the obligatory training montage, instead of Bill Conti's bombastic brass, we get Ray Brooks' "Bad Mama Jama," which is a pleasing musical kick, although the song is simply a paean to T and A.

Delivery of every scene is incredibly, unflinchingly earnest, which often highlights the plentiful corn in the dialogue, but even corn provides essential amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. For this, Knockout can be perceived as both a font of inspiration and a burning hell of extreme sincerity. People may love or hate this stuff for the very same reasons.

Culturally speaking, despite the inclusion of only a few sparse Spanish asides, Knockout is an ode to Latin integrity, as well as Christian faith. It's just unfortunate that the prominent whites are either lecherous or homicidal, the prominent blacks shifty or vicious. Tessaro fills the same position as Rocky's Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang, although she could soundly thrash them both. And it's a shame too that Gibbs' plumed prematch pageantry spoils the Terminator's crude mystique, inspiring instead gales of laughter. (Oops. On second thought, considering those fists and biceps, I take that back. She's perfect.)

Technically the movie plays like a student project with an expanded budget. Extras look like extras, sound editing (heartbeats, echoing thuds) is rote, and the locker rooms and boxing arenas are ludicrously tidy. Despite this inadequate set-dressing, director of photography Hisham Abed succeeds in creating some striking tableaux and also gets in close to the action, so one wonders what he could do with more-artful material. As for the actors, they stick and jab as much as they can within these parameters. "Don't let your emotions take over!" Mario shouts to Belle at one match, yet it's a good thing Doumani dodges that advice with Hernandez. The fresh actress is so dedicated and energetic that she eclipses even the unfathomably lame ringside commentators, who don't know the difference between a cross and a crucifix.

Knockout's heart is in the right place, but it drags for its tedious earnestness and shallow "You go, girl!" feminism. Gauge it at five steps above Shania Twain's boneheaded shtick, 500 below Clarissa Estes' illumination. Beating each other up to show love and devotion? Whatever snaps your spine, ladies. If boxing leads to feminine empowerment, as this movie posits, then it behooves men to find an equally sensible pastime to fortify their gender. So if you'll pardon me, I have a Tupperware party to attend.