Boxing has an enigmatic magnetism for me. Enigmatic, because I was born without a fighting gene. If you don’t count clench-eyed childhood fisticuffs flurries with my brother, I’ve never hit anyone. I copped a whack to the jaw once, in primary school, when I accused an opponent of cheating in “handball” (no resemblance to the European game). Came out of nowhere, sat me on my arse and shocked the hell out of me. I’ve never forgotten it.
So what attracts a wuz like me to boxing? My initial interest probably derived from watching championship title bouts on TV as a kid with my father and brother. In those days, there was no pay TV – all world title fights were broadcast, and were events not to be missed. This was the time of local heroes Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon, and of course the great icon of the 60s/early 70s, Mohammad Ali.
Ali embodied the paradoxes that made boxing so compelling for me. The showbiz pizazz, the sense of theatre. The bemusing cohabitation of bone-rattling brute power and grace that tipped over into kinetic poetry. The pre-fight bragging and playful wit that charmed the media and public while serving a dual function as the psychological weapons of a smiling assassin. The nobility of the great warrior superimposed on the primal savagery that lurks within the athlete killer in the ring.
Then there is the backdrop – the flood-lit roped-off square of canvas sanctifying grievous bodily harm and murderous intent. The crowd baying its blood lust. The enormous stakes, the terrible risk of annihilation, the sweat and the fury, the impossible art of it all.
In the combination of these disparate elements lies boxing’s allure.
My interest in boxing does not generally extend to boxing movies. However, I attended an advance screening of Two Fists One Heart last Sunday with a heightened sense of curiousity, firstly because it was filmed in Perth, and secondly because I was aware that it was the culmination of a 10 year dream of “Northbridge identity” Rai Fazio. Rightly or wrongly, I associate Fazio with seedy suburban gyms and the shady mythologised figures of Perth’s underworld – not the sort of demographic that typically spawns movie makers and artists, you’d think. Intriguing.
I know something of the challenge that awaits the feature movie aspirant, having worked on a few scripts, attended funding interviews (unsuccessfully) at Screenwest, and yawned through some low-budget filming sessions. It’s not easy. In fact, for a no-name writer without industry connections, it’s damn near impossible. So, respect Rai, even before the lights went down.
I have to admit, my expectations were not high, though, the dire Thunderstruck being my most recent experience of Perth cinematic output. Further, I’d read that Fazio’s inspiration for Two Fists One Heart was not Ali or any of the greats of boxing history, but Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, which I long ago dismissed as cartoonish (and buffoonish) Hollywood crapola. But who cares what I think of Rocky? Not even me! The focus here is Fazio’s movie – and a bloody impressive debut it is.
I was gripped from the opening scene – an underwater shot at a Perth beach of a child being forcibly submerged by his father in a bizarre breath-holding exercise. When his struggles become frantic, the boy is allowed to surface, gasps for air and is forced under again.
This image – unforgettable in itself – is full of symbolic intent, prefiguring the suffocating dominance Italian immigrant father Joe Argo exercises over his son Anthony all the way to adulthood and beyond, as he trains him mercilessly in quest of ringside glory. Clever.
Readers of my movie reviews will know that I am not fond of narrative summarising. There are any number of sites out there that will give you a synopsis, if that’s what you’re after. It is not “what happens” that interests me, but how it happens. And how it happens in Two Fists One Heart is through a generally excellent script which the astutely cast actors relish, some terrific camera work and editing, direction that seems to have brought the absolute best out of all involved, and a soundtrack that works exceptionally well. Yes indeed. This movie is the goods.
And excitingly, while its narrative and themes will speak to audiences everywhere, it is distinctly Perth in flavour – and there is nothing contrived about this. No gratuitous pans of the Swan River from Kings Park, no city skylines, no Bell Tower (joke!). Northbridge gets a lot of the action, there is a beachside drive past Cottesloe and a nocturnal ferry trip across to South Perth, but there is no sense of forced geographical identity, of the tourist promo sub-agenda that too often seems to infiltrate Aussie movies. The movie is shot and set in Perth, most of the actors and crew are locals, and the personality of the city comes through naturally.
To a large extent, Perth is defined by its divisions: north and south of the river, beach and hills, posh suburbs and plain, and the vast suburban middleclass comfort zones that lie between. There are the ethnic communities and other sub-communities common to any Australian city, but not much interaction, or indeed access, between them. (Perth is nothing if not cliquey). Two Fists One Heart gives us an intriguing look inside the Perth Italian community inhabited by the Argos, who live in the notoriously rough working class suburb of Balga. It’s a fair bet that the great majority of non-Italian Perthites will never get as close in real life to sampling this world as they do through the camera lens here!
The same could be said of the shady side of Northbridge. We all know it’s there, but most of us only glimpse it second-hand through sensationalised media reports. Anthony’s flirtation with crime in the early stages of the movie take us by day to car repair joints that are fronts for illicit business, manned by monster meathead mechanics whom, you suspect, may moonlight as standover goons and hitmen. By night, deals are done in the narcotic early hours between dodgy gangster types in the shadowy recesses of bars and clubs. It’s all simulation, sure, but you get the impression that it borrows heavily from the reality (Fazio’s pen dipped in the ink of experience, perhaps).
When Anthony takes up with Kate, a psychology student from a comfortable middleclass background, class and ethnic divisions are bridged for a time. Kate introduces him to her urbane environment of educated, culturally aware types. When Anthony and Kate go to the Mustang Bar (a Perth indi music institution, incidentally), her muso brother, Tom, interrupts his gig to slag off the Balga boy through the microphone. Anthony gives back as good as he gets, and while the battle of wits that ensues is good-natured enough, it hints at the ideological clashes that are ahead for him and his lover from the other side of the track (err, river).
The central relationship of the movie, though, is that of the lead characters, Anthony and his father Joe. Daniel Amalm gives a powerhouse performance as the intense and troubled Anthony, while renowned Italian-based actor Ennio Fantastichini digs deep as the pig-headed, obsessive and despotic Joe. The volatile father-son relationship, which simmers with tension throughout, erupts into an explosive scene in which they almost come to blows. For me, this was the dramatic peak of the movie, rather than the title fight faceoff between Anthony and his nemesis, the thuggish ex-con fighter Nico (convincingly played by Rai Fazio), which concludes the movie.
Jessica Marais gives all that is required to the character of Kate, but it’s hardly a challenging role. Her rapid ascent as an actor has a lot to do with her gorgeous physical presence, I suspect (surely, hers is the most luscious mouth in the business). Talk of her being the next Cate Blanchett is way premature. I look forward to seeing her tackle meatier roles as her career progresses.
All the supporting actors are good. Tim Minchin plays Tim Minchin perfectly under the alias of Tom. Paul Pantano is entirely believable as Theo, Anthony’s best mate. Broome up-and-comer Karl Bin Rashid delivers the funniest line in the movie when he refers to his no-hoper bogan father in the ripest of street vernacular. And Ingle Knight makes the most of a brief appearance, hamming it up a treat as an eccentric psychology lecturer.
The film takes a predictable turn as it heads towards its conclusion, and the dramatic tension slackens right when it should be cranking up. It’s as if Fazio always had his ending, courtesy of the Rocky prototype, that however the script unfolded as it developed its ultimate destination was fixed and not negotiable. Nevertheless, the fight scenes are brilliantly shot, and imbued with a realism that far surpasses Stallone’s best efforts.
Two Fists One Heart is altogether more substantial than its Hollywood prototype. It falls short of greatness, but is head and shoulders above any movie to come out of Perth that I have seen. More than that, it is a class above most recent Australian product and has set the national standard for film makers for 2009.
It was released nationally yesterday. See it.
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