Archives for posts with tag: boxing

Only God Forgives

Ryan Gosling, fresh off of a revelatory turn in the excellent Place Beyond the Pines, unfortunately chooses to squander his talent in Only God Forgives, playing Julian, an American expatriate in Thailand whose boxing club fronts for a narcotics ring. When his immoral brother Billy (Tom Burke) kills a girl and is murdered in turn, Julian’s disgusting mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from the States and insists that Julian seek revenge – even if this means eliminating a formidable police detective, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

In a pretentious feat of style-over-substance showboating, director Nicolas Refn and his collaborators place so much emphasis on their ostentatious color schemes, self-conscious compositions, and generally gratuitous visual flourishes that they very nearly succeed in ruining what, in less limp-wristed hands, could have been a solidly gritty story of a family vendetta. Worst is that most of the actors in this nearly dialogueless drama appear to have been instructed to behave as robotically as possible, never smiling, as if every movement of every muscle is meant to convey existential angst, every second of every moment an endless Holocaust of the soul which, rather, screens as overly deliberate soullessness. The copious music of Cliff Martinez, a mixture of organic and synthesized sound, is both a blessing and a curse, as some lackluster scenes receive energy from these contributions, while others seem overly noisy where silence would be preferable.

The film does contain some very good scenes and in places achieves an adequate level of suspense. Those looking for action or for any kind of hero will be disappointed, however. An odd performance notwithstanding, the compulsively watchable presence of Ryan Gosling is, ultimately, at least half of what makes this idiosyncratic effort work to the modest extent that it does.

3.5 grudging stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Only God Forgives is:

[WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS]

6. Drug-ambivalent. The film passes no apparent judgment on the brothers’ drug trafficking. Different characters smoke in an indifferent manner, though Julian’s mother’s exhalations at a restaurant table would seem to be intended to parallel her disrespectful words.

5. Slut-ambivalent. While the film shows the physical danger that goes with a prostitute’s lifestyle, the representative whores are graceful and beautiful creatures who conduct themselves with elegant composure.

4. Pro-miscegenation. Julian engages in voyeurism and limited sexual contact with whores, not from any apparent apprehensions of disease, but out of a misplaced reverence for oriental pussy. His mother enjoys ogling Thai musclemen.

3. Pro-police. Chang, a karaoke singer, exemplifies the law enforcer as fetishized performance artist.

2. Anti-white/anti-racist (i.e., pro-yawn). Several scenes juxtapose white characters’ rudeness, vulgarity, and presumption with Asians’ dignity, good manners, or superior fighting ability. Americans and Europeans, from a sense of their own superiority and Asians’ expendability, go to Thailand to exploit its people, causing them to prostitute themselves or hire themselves out as killers. Making no secret of her feelings, Julian’s mother refers to a “yellow nigger”. The film’s perpetrators also give clear expression to their European inferiority complex and belief in the awesomeness of things Asian by giving the title and credits in Thai, with subtitle-style English credits in smaller type beneath, so that no belching American privileged to enjoy Only God Forgives will get the mistaken impression that his entertainment is any more important than some Thai guy’s.

1. Anti-family. Grotesque family relationships abound in Only God Forgives. Julian, his lascivious mother relates, was envious of her sexual relationship with his brother Billy, and lives in exile after having murdered his father at her behest. A Thai man prostitutes his daughters and may be more aggrieved by the loss of revenue than the loss of his child after one of them is killed. The sight of a retarded boy, meanwhile, reminds viewers of the potential perils of unchecked procreation. Chang appears to have a loving relationship with his daughter, but the brief screen time devoted to this is too little to counterbalance the overwhelming abundance of family dysfunction. Julian acquiesces in his mother’s call for revenge only reluctantly, and with good reason, as his acknowledgment of a pointless blood obligation precipitates his downfall.

Counterpunch‘s opening credits play over slow-motion footage of a pugilist gracefully practicing his art alone in a ring, inviting immediate comparison with Raging Bull – which, however, does Counterpunch no favors, only throwing into starker contrast than necessary the dramatic inferiority of everything that follows.  The best boxing films are character studies, and Counterpunch at least gets that part right, focusing more on the personal life of aspiring fighter Emilio Manrique (Alvaro Orlando) than on his professional struggles.  The trouble is that Manrique too often comes across as a victim rather than a hero, and that the idea of an athlete with bipolar disorder overcoming his gang past, an alcoholic mother, a stabbed dog, and a grandmother’s heart disease simply falls short of good entertainment.

Alvaro Orlando is charming as an unusually shy fighter attached to his dog but awkward when it comes to women.  Counterpunch might have been a better, more satisfying film had the character not been a boxer at all, as the film’s treatment of the sport and the figures who operate around it offers little new to the genre apart from peppery, bickering Cubans and the boring novelty of an attractive female fight promoter. Camila Banus is never really convincing as someone who would live in this grimy world, but does have a chemistry with Orlando and might have been better utilized in a more fully developed romantic storyline.  Danny Trejo, contrarily, has the perfect type of hardened features for a study of the demimonde of broken lives that is boxing, but Trejo has little to do in his meager and undemanding supporting role as a friendly orderly in a mental institution.

Counterpunch‘s biggest mistake where the hard-hitting boxing melodrama is concerned may be its insistence on being blandly uplifting (including the obligatory climactic comeback knockout) where downbeat defeat would be more realistic and faithfully tragic.  ICA’s advice: see Fat City or Requiem for a Heavyweight instead.  2.5 of 5 possible stars.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Counterpunch is:

7. Anti-slut.  Apart from the unfavorable depiction of Emilio’s mother (Yeniffer Behrens), there is a scene in which a woman having sex in a parked car becomes the target of gang members looking for group action.

6. Feminist.  “If I’m going to be a female boxing promoter, I gotta work twice as hard,” resourceful promoter Talia Portillo (Camila Banus) says, suggesting that the sexist professional deck is stacked against the distaff.

5. Anti-drug.  Emilio attempts suicide after drinking heavily and smoking a joint.  His alcoholic mother is a mess and suffers at the hand of her druggy boyfriend, who is eventually murdered in a dispute over a dime bag.

4. Christian.  “God’s last name is not ‘Damn’,” Emilio’s Grandma Daisy (Ivonne Coll) reverently reminds his Uncle Frank (Oscar Torre).  When Emilio questions God’s existence, Grandma Daisy placidly reassures him, saying, “God gave me you.”  Uncle Frank sends Emilio a Bible for comfort during his institutionalization.

3. Class-conscious.  Emilio says he comes from a part of Miami no one ever sees.  He lacks the promotional backing of established fighter Teddy (Jilon Ghai) and feels uncomfortable at a trendy dance party attended by beautiful, well-dressed people.

2. Diversity-skeptical.  Cuban street thugs (who call each other “Nigga”) react with hostility to encroachments onto their turf by “dirty Haitians”.  After Emilio’s gang, the Jack Boys, beat and rob a Caucasian, one member taunts him, “A’ight, Mr. White Man, pleasure doing business with you.”  “I hate the way people look down at pitbulls just because of the way they look,” Emilio reflects suggestively at one point.  Though never made explicit, there is a racial tension to his rivalry with white fighter Teddy.

1. Pro-family.  Emilio’s mother repeatedly lets him down, but his Uncle Frank and Grandma Daisy are dependable and a source of strength.

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