Girlfight is more than just girls stepping in the ring

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Chris Vognar / The Dallas Morning News

Melodrama and realism share the ring in Girlfight, and they get along surprisingly well.

Karyn Kusama's film festival favorite boasts the stuff of classic boxing flicks: an underdog releasing frustration through the sweet science, a wise trainer putting his faded glory to work, a climactic showdown to test the hero's mettle. The big difference, of course, is all about gender. In positing a female fighter who can go toe-to-toe with the fellas, Ms. Kusama has crafted a gritty boxing yarn for the 21st century, without sacrificing the "no guts, no glory" feel of our favorite fight films.

Actually, she's not the first director to take on women's boxing: Lorenzo Doumani's Knockout made a brief appearance earlier this year before getting KO'd by poor box office and even worse reviews. Girlfight will not suffer the same fate, largely because it's made by someone who clearly belongs behind a camera. Despite a few too many dips into the cliché pool, Ms. Kusama proves herself a fine visual storyteller and a skilled navigator of indie and Hollywood aesthetics.

She also struck gold with her star, a young woman named Michelle Rodriguez. With no prior experience acting or boxing, Ms. Rodriguez makes a dazzling debut. She's got a death-stare scowl that burns through the screen and the unmistakable presence of a potential star. Even when her performance strikes a one-note tone of toughness, that note rings so clear and true that she never loses command. She's got the chops to be a Hollywood action heroine, and perhaps much more.

Ms. Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman, a high school senior with a two-ton chip on her shoulder. The first scene finds her defending the honor of one girl by beating the tar out of another; she's soon channeling her ample aggression by working out with a crusty, but warm-hearted, trainer (Jaime Tirelli) in a beat-up Brooklyn gym.

Girlfight is interested in the obstacles Diana faces as a female boxer, including a curmudgeonly rival trainer (Herb Lovelle) and an ineffectual father (Paul Calderon), who wants to know if it would kill his daughter to wear a skirt.

But this is no mere Title IX treatise; the action seems to unfold out of time, clearly in the pre-Christy Martin era but not confined to actual historical events or even solid plausibility. Rather than diminish the film, these qualities give Diana's quest an almost archetypal feel: She's a woman warrior, infected with the need to kick you-know-what and take names.

Ms. Kusama, who honed her eye and ear for boxing by working out at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, shows an even more canny sense of what it means to live as an adolescent in poverty. Diana drifts off in class and returns home to a cramped housing project, shot with claustrophobic tightness and washed-out colors. When Diana and her love interest (Santiago Douglas) talk about getting out of the 'hood, you hear the yearning in both voices. And when Diana's best friend briefly turns against her, you feel just how important camaraderie is in this world, even for a stubborn individualist.

While Girlfight handles the gritty details, it also shows a hearty appetite for the Big Moment – inside the ring and out. Ms. Kusama knows her old Hollywood, and she's not afraid to pull out some emotional stops. Such florid bluntness might not play well in an age of sneering irony, and it stunts some of Girlfight's narrative momentum – but not enough to mar an intelligent, gutsy debut combo from Ms. Kusama and Ms. Rodriguez.

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