Combustible Celluloid Review - Girlfight (2000), Karyn Kusama, Karyn Kusama, Michelle Rodriguez, Santiago Douglas, Ray Santiago, Paul Calderon, Jaime Tirelli, Elisa Bacanegra, John Sayles
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With: Michelle Rodriguez, Santiago Douglas, Ray Santiago, Paul Calderon, Jaime Tirelli, Elisa Bacanegra, John Sayles
Written by: Karyn Kusama
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 110
Date: 01/21/2000

Girlfight (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's a familiar image. Two boxers, in a fit of exhaustion, fall against one another in a kind of professional embrace. In the new film Girlfight, the image takes on a new resonance as one of the fighters whispers in the other one's ear, "I love you."

To go one further, one of these fighters is a girl, Diana Guzman, played by newcomer Michelle Rodriguez.

Diana, who lives in a Brooklyn project, goes one day to pick up her brother Tiny (Ray Santiago) from his boxing lessons and becomes fascinated with that world. Unbeknownst to their loser father (Paul Calderon, from Pulp Fiction and Out of Sight), Tiny secretly lets Diana have his boxing money so that she can take the lessons instead. (Tiny, who wants to be an artist, is a pretty big sissy anyway.)

Diana's fury and intensity, paired with guidance from her trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli), quickly escalates her into competition. In the meantime, she falls for another boxer named Adrian (in both homage and parody of Rocky) played by Santiago Douglas. Adrian eats salads trying to keep his weight down and Diana eats bacon cheeseburgers trying to feed her appetite. They end up in the same weight class and in the ring together.

Girlfight was written and directed by first-timer Karyn Kusama. It's a refreshingly straightforward and honest attempt, flying in the face of the rest of the product out there, which is either manipulating and dumb or tricky and arty. The production was shepherded by John Sayles and many of his regular producers and crew members. Sayles himself executive produced and plays a small part as a boring science teacher. The crew of Girlfight all got their start as assistants on recent Sayles films. And indeed, Girlfight plays a little like a Sayles film, filmed at a neutral middle distance with strict attention to dialogue and character.

And what a find Michelle Rodriguez is! She has a good, strong face and arms, and man can she scowl! She could probably out-scowl Clint Eastwood. (The movie's first image is Rodriguez scowling into the camera, immediately telling us everything about her.) I can picture her in Eastwood-like roles from now on; a tough lady cop, or even a western gunfighter.

Since it comes with a Sundance pedigree, Girlfight will have to put up with some undeserved critical backlash. One reviewer called it a "button-pusher," based on scenes like the one in which Diana and her classmates take a physical education test in school. The newly in-shape Diana runs circles around the rest of her classmates (whom she doesn't like), and the revenge is sweet. But this scene and others like it are handled with an even tone that never feels phony or pandering. Even the ending feels logical and real, as the fate of the lovers hangs in uncertainty.

Girlfight marks the strongest directing and acting debuts of the year for Kusama and Rodriguez. (How refreshing that they seemingly came from nowhere and are not related to anybody in the business.) Girlfight certainly deserves a slot next to some of the all-time great boxing films from Body and Soul (1947) to last year's documentary On the Ropes (which also features a girl boxer). It puts the prize back in prizefighting.

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