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[whitespace] 'Girlfight'
Dukes of Hazard: With a little help from trainer Jaime Tirelli, Michelle Rodriguez plays hard to get in Karyn Kusama's 'Girlfight.'

Fixed Fight

'Girlfight' is the same old boxing picture given a sex change

By Richard von Busack

IT'S ONE THING for novice director Karyn Kusama to refer to her star as "Brando as a teenage girl." Michelle Rodriguez, the debuting lead in Girlfight, does have Brando's big forehead, sharp, dark eyebrows and lush mouth. My question is why have so many of the nation's critics echoed Kusama, making a physical likeness into something more than it is? They ought to go back and have a look at all the aspects of Brando that Rodriguez doesn't have, including a sense of self-amusement and a flirtatious way with authority. Rodriguez may look like Brando, but her rage-ball stare is at first tiresome and then deeply annoying. You can't blame the young fighter, really, but you can blame her trainer, Kusama.

The simmering Diana Guzman (Rodriguez) lives in a Brooklyn project with her contemptuous dad (Paul Calderon) and her little bro, Tiny (Ray Santiago). Dad is pushing Tiny into the ring so that he can defend himself against bullies, but Diana decides that the boxing gym is the perfect place for her. What follows is the all-too-familiar playing out of the pugilist movie, maybe a little funkier than usual. Diana clobbers a duct-taped punching bag, thrashes her sparring partners and runs around the track at her high school. But then--so quick that we don't see it--she falls for a cute young male fighter named Adrian, played by Santiago Douglas. (Adrian's name is not a tribute to Talia Shire in Rocky, or so Kusama claims.) The two start a tentative relationship that leads up to an intergender boxing match.

Having seen a similar, better story of a love affair that was also a rivalry in sports once this year--Love and Basketball--Girlfight seems a lesser film to me. Girlfight is set in the slums but isn't of it. Observe the scene in which Adrian and Diana are sitting and talking about the terrible things that often happen in the projects. Note how secondhand it all sounds. These aren't events they've experienced; they talk like people who have heard about trouble on TV. Call Girlfight gritty, but it takes Diane's father apparently three months to realize he's had money stolen from him by his daughter. And the way that the lovers end up in the ring is similarly false (as is Diana's line, "If you don't fight me in this match, then you're less of a man than I think you are").

If Diana is a Jackie LaMotta, why doesn't Kusama take it to the limit and make her a ruthless girl who is going to box her way out of the ghetto by any means necessary? Answer: Because the young girls couldn't root for her if she was too mean. Surface grime doesn't cover up the mainstream softness of Girlfight, anymore than tight, barbed-wire braids and a monotonous bad-dog stare can cover up Rodriguez's inexperience. At two long hours, Girlfight works Rodriguez's sulkiness in tight close-up after tight close-up. You'll feel like the dope that's been roped: punch-drunk.

Girlfight (R; 110 min.), written and directed by Karyn Kusama, photographed by Patrick Cady and starring Michelle Rodriguez, Jaime Tirelli and Santiago Douglas, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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