From Fight Machine

Fantasia Festival 2022 Film Review – The Fight Machine (2022)

Fists fly and destinies entwine as violence and philosophy clash in this savagely smart fight flick from Canada.

Privileged Paul gets a humiliating pummeling after insulting the wrong dive bar beard to impress his date. After the stinging dust of emasculation settles he becomes obsessed with boxing and coils menacingly under the crooked wing of underground fight promoter Lou. He is soon hurtling down a drug-fueled rabbit hole of personal discovery that will lead him to the infamous teeth-smashing pain space of The Barn.

Reflective Rob is a spiritually raw young man who trains at his father’s boxing club with his hard case with a heart of gold uncle Tom. Rob is a promising pugilist struggling for focus and has more of a connection to Tom than his emotionally reticent dad. He is also resentful towards the harshness of the ring being relentlessly presented as his only exit from the mundanity of small-town obscurity.

When Rob’s family is rocked by a tragedy he is compelled to embrace his potential and intersect Paul’s chaotic orbit of self-destruction.

Director Andrew Thomas Hunt’s elevated sports picture is notably different in tone from his last outing, the trash action horror Spare Parts (2020). The violence and left-field headfuckery are still present but this time round Hunt harnesses his maverick artistic style to spit out a gory glob of underdog melodrama.

Superbly executed and tighter than Ryan Gosling’s Ken shorts it is a stunningly controlled piece of cinema that at times recalls the Mean Streets of early Scorsese and at others the social realist cynicism of vintage Loach.

Cult author Craig Davidson co-wrote the screenplay for The Fight Machine sourced from his own book The Fighter just as he did with Jacques Audiard’s sublimely classy adaptation of his earlier work Rust and Bone. Both films bear the hallmarks of his creative input in terms of grounded carnage and exquisite character depth. Fans of the latter film will be suitably amused at the wry re-emergence of captive killer whales as a metaphor for the complex consequences of compromised autonomy.

Davidson is often cited as sharing similar strands of literary DNA with Charles Palahniuk but make no mistake, The Fight Machine is no Fight Club knockoff. It is completely its own beast with a much more intimate and earthy take on the concept of identity. The characters in this claustrophobic world are not in conflict with the system, they are battling themselves, and more importantly, their preordained kismet.

Eric Oh’s measured cinematography simmers with a washed-out aesthetic that amplifies the naturalistic ambiance of the piece. The fight sequences are shot with a mature restraint that sits well with the intense sound design and bruising effects work. It all makes for an exhilarating spectacle, vivid but not overtly flashy, that is sure to elicit cathartic air punching from the viewer.

Hunt has assembled a fabulous cast who clearly enjoyed working with the challenging material and their chemistry drives the movie forward with understated class.

Greg Hovanessian plays Paul with a skilful nuance that does not shy away from his sociopathic nature, yet never tips over the edge into comic-book demonisation. Sure, the physical side of his portrayal is believable and on occasion distressing. Not least in one of the most shocking sex scenes in some time that sails perilously close to the censor’s scissors. However, it is the psychological layers that explore the dark caverns of sadomasochism riddled with the cracks of fractured mental health that Hovanessian refines so carefully that really shines. 

It would have been all too easy to stumble into an uneasy cross between Patrick Bateman and the guy who tells Patrick Swayze he used to “fuck guys like him in prison” from Roadhouse. Instead, Hovanessian crafts a multifaceted depiction of a coddled young man whose idea of self-improvement has been sandblasted by the discombobulating side effects of black market stimulants.

Rising star Dempsey Bryk plays Rob with the required simplicity to provide contrast, yet his performance is no less accomplished. There are clear parallels between the two men but Rob’s inner rage stems from pent-up self-doubt and moral injustice rather than a distorted reaction to entitlement. Paul relishes the primordial elegance of giving and taking a face-changing beating. Rob is embarrassed by its baseness. Bryk projects this inherent divergence with a tangible humility that makes it impossible not to root for him.

The rest of the cast flesh out the middle ground that both defines and divides Paul and Rob with a graceful ease that cements their past and galvanises their tempestuous future. It’s fine ensemble work of a certain rarity in the genre that anchors the dramatic twists and provides surprising humour in the face of seriously damaging life choices. A hilarious anecdotal monologue by the irresistibly congenial uncle Tom, played superbly by Noah Danby, typifies this lightness of touch in the script. 

Also marvellous to witness is the legendary Michael Ironside cropping up in his gnarly mentor role again as Paul’s trainer Lou. It’s like putting on a favourite old pair of comfy slippers that have been chewed by a friendly rottweiler. 

Keep your preconceptions in check and approach the movie with a thematically open mind and a modicum of caution, it does get pretty nasty in places, and you will have a blast.

The Fight Machine is categorically not an over-the-top hyper-kinetic martial arts movie. Nor is it a generic sports movie overloaded with inspirational locker room speeches and commentator-led spoon-feeding. Instead, it’s a vital and energising hit of high-calibre filmmaking that politely asks you to contemplate the Machiavellian mechanics of destiny before flattening your nose to a pulp in a hay bale arena.

★★★★★

WORLD PREMIERE

Drama, Action, Sport | Canada, 2022 | 104 mins | Fantasia 2022 |Raven Banner | Dirs. Andrew Thomas Hunt | With: Dempsey Bryk, Greg Bryk, Noah Danby, Greg Hovanessian, Michael Ironside