Film

FEEL-GOOD VIOLENCE

From Mr. and Mrs. Smith to .Cinderella Man, Hollywood sells the sentimental side of brutality

Brian D. Johnson June 13 2005
Film

FEEL-GOOD VIOLENCE

From Mr. and Mrs. Smith to .Cinderella Man, Hollywood sells the sentimental side of brutality

Brian D. Johnson June 13 2005

FEEL-GOOD VIOLENCE

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

From Mr. and Mrs. Smith to .Cinderella Man, Hollywood sells the sentimental side of brutality

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED to me on the way to the movies the other night. Cycling through a housing project, I hit a speed bump, went flying off my bike and broke my fall with my fist scraping the pavement. Nothing’s broken, except my cellphone. Ten minutes later, I’m at the multiplex, picking up tickets for Cinderella Man—the saga of a boxer with a fierce left jab—and the knuckles of my left hand are brightly bleeding. Looks like I’ve been in a fight. I ask for a first aid kit at the box office,

and no one blinks. Guess this happens all the time at the multiplex. Maybe stoned teens get head injuries playing on the escalators, or brawls break out in the video arcade. Anyway, by the time I get to my seat, with my hand impressively bandaged, I feel like the Method Critic. The adrenalin’s flowing. I’m in the zone, eager for another rematch with Ron Howard. That Hollywood pussy. He’s got a lot to atone for—Cocoon, Backdraft,ABeautifulMind. Just let me get apiece of him.

I’m on a roll. This is my second fight movie in a week. The other is Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and it’s about fighting your wife. Cinderella Man is about fighting for your wife. One movie is an inspirational drama based on the true story of a boxer punching his way out of the Depression—Rocky meets Seabiscuit. The other is a slapstick farce about a man and wife who are high-level assassins assigned to kill each other—Marriage: Impossible. But both films are fairy tales, with happy endings and a feel-good brutality that’s sadly lacking in our daily lives.

When was the last time you were in a good fight? Not just an argument, but a fist fight. Or better still, a brisk round of armed struggle? But that’s why God invented Hollywood. Here are two movies that deliver

violence as sentiment—both dedicated to the notion that there is nothing more emotionally satisfying than trying to rip someone’s head off. I can already see the self-help books flying off the shelf. Save Your Marriage With His and HerM16s. Or How to Beat the Next Recession by Fighting for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a featherweight contender, a shadow-boxing exercise in frustration. We’re all curious to check out the chemistry between the leads, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who have been “linked” in the tabloids. That rumour, which they’ve denied, may be as suspect as Tom Cruise’s manic affection for Katie Holmes. But there’s a cute irony in seeing Brad and Angelina, who may or may not be in the early throes of romance, cast as a married couple on the rocks.

Unfortunately, their best scene unfolds before the opening credits, as the Smiths compare notes with a marriage counsellor. It then takes ages for them to discover each other’s covert professions as assassins—which we’ve known from the start because we’ve seen the trailer. And, yes, there is chemistry between Pitt and Jolie, but it’s soon buried under a tedious onslaught of action. The Smiths put the heat back in their marriage in a high-tech War of the Roses that leaves

their suburban house in ruins. This is not the kind of bang-bang we want to see between these two actors. We’re left looking for scraps, parsing evidence of the “real” Brad and Angelina from nudges and winks glimpsed between the lines of a firefight

ON THE WEB What happens when a film critic picks up the camera? View Brian D. Johnson’s footage from Cannes at www.macleans.ca/cannescarousel

that’s as about sexy as a game of paintball.

Although the stars studied with weapons experts and a former member of a U.S. Navy SEAL unit, any attempt at realism is shredded by a ludicrous script. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg first wrote it as an M.A. thesis, and he’s concocted a frankenfilm hybrid—a screwball marital comedy action thriller. Director Doug Limon, the slick hand behind The Bourne Identity, pulls out all the stops with ajames Bond arsenal of artillery. Brad has a secret cellar stacked with gigantic guns; Angelina’s stove pops opens to reveal a hidden weapons cache. In a role-reversed flip of sexual etiquette, Brad plays the softie while Angelina is the blade-throwing (i.e. castrating) dominatrix unable to locate her emotions. And Vince Vaughn, who made his breakthrough in Limon’s Swingers (1996), adds an offbeat touch in a motor-mouthed cameo as a smartass spy boss. But it all adds up to another Hollywood movie infatuated with its own hyperbolic style. In a world where everything’s ironic, nothing is at stake.

Cinderella Man, on the other hand, is a classic period drama, made with an unalloyed, earnest conviction. It bears a certain resemblance to that other boxing film about a white, dirt-poor underdog fighting for a slice of the American Dream—Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. But this one is a genuine fairy tale, not a tragic melodrama. And Ron Howard drives home the sentiment with a knockout punch so squarely on the nose that Eastwood, by contrast, seems as austere as Ingmar Bergman.

A battered Russell Crowe plays boxing legend James “Bulldog” Braddock, a bluecollar hero who made New Jersey mythic long before Bruce Springsteen. With cosmic timing, Braddock’s fight career collapses in 1929, just as the stock market crash triggers the Great Depression. After a broken right hand forces him out of the sport, he struggles to get work on the docks, and relies on handouts to keep his wife (Renée Zellweger) and three kids alive. Through a fluke, Braddock gets thrown back in the ring and scores an upset. That begins a miraculous comeback. Dubbed “the Cinderella Man” by writer Damon Runyon, he becomes a folk hero, a beacon of courage in hard times. The drama climaxes in 1935 with a

brutal showdown between our humble family man and a flamboyant, womanizing monster—Max Baer (Craig Bierko), who’s credited with killing two previous challengers to his heavyweight title.

As this 144-minute saga unspools, I’ve got my guard up. Maybe it’s my bleeding hand, but I’m almost muttering with impatience. Why is everyone acting like they’re in an old movie, talking like Humphrey Bogart? Why does everything have to look so brown and grey and burnished? Were there no colours in the Depression? Hmmm, that snow looks fake. And what’s with the Celtic music behind the whir of the punching bag? Laboriously, the film establishes Braddock as a loving husband and infallible father. But I’m dying to see his dark side. Everybody has a dark side. Resigned to cynicism, I pass the time trying to recognize the Toronto locations where most of the movie was filmed. Nice to see Maple Leaf Gardens standing in for Madison Square Garden. Hey, there’s Nicholas Campbell, the Da Vinci guy, playing a wise guy reporter at ringside.

But sports movies aren’t supposed to be subtle. And when they connect, the more you resist, the harder you fall. I find myself getting sucker-punched in the fight scenes— flinching with the kind of physical reflex I used to get watching playoff hockey. When Braddock’s trainer (a pugnacious Paul Giamatti) tells his fighter to “get inside” his opponent and drive his nose through his skull, I’m with him. Yeah. Let’s see that. Howard’s prosaic direction works for the boxing sequences. They look real. He doesn’t cheat with a blitz of fast cuts; you can follow the play. And Crowe looks like the real deal. He’s still the guy from Gladiator, a man fighting for wife and family, except this time they’re not dead. And even if you know the ending, the suspense is visceral.

At one point, trying to sell his contender’s appeal to a promoter, Giamatti’s character says, “People are sentimental... We both know the name of this game, and it sure as hell ain’t pugilism.” He could have been talking to a Hollywood mogul. Violence in movies like Cinderella Man isn’t a blood sport; it’s a sacrament. An act of faith that’s better than sex. As I type this, blood is starting to show through the bandages, a little mortification of the flesh. Nasty job, film criticism. But there’s no telling how far a guy will go to feed his family. fll