Fantasia 2022 The Fight Machine Review
As The Fight Machine’s protagonist narrates to the viewer at the very start, even if a person changes only 5%, that can be a heck of a lot. It might not sound like much but imagine 5% of all the celestial stars and planets changing due to natural interference and evolution. If mention of celestial bodies in a fighting movie sounds as if the film is working too hard to be important, rest assured. Director Andrew Thomas Hunt’s picture is sharply focused. The themes land with a walloping punch and, yes, its characters go through tremendous change. Just don’t hold your breath for strictly positive change.
Much like how the evolution of the cosmos is inevitable, the destinies of Paul (Greg Hovanessian) and Robbie (Dempsey Byrk) are intertwined. They simply don’t know it when the film opens. Each one lives on opposite sides of Niagara Falls. Rob is in the United States and hails from a poor family who barely gets by with the illegal bare-knuckle fights uncle Tom (Noah Dalton Danby) engages in with the help of manager Reuben (Greg Byrk), Robbie’s father and Tom’s brother. He’s is a good fighter by all accounts, maybe even better than Tom ever was. That is crucial because Rob’s father hopes to God that his son’s fists will save him from a life of misery. The young adult is the sensitive type however and isn’t sure he sees a future for himself in fighting. On the Canadian side, Paul has a cozy desk job (with an office window!) at his family’s vineyard. By contrast, Paul is absolutely fed up with his pampered lifestyle. A wild calling awakens within him, one that sees him adopt a reckless attitude as if seeking pain. Wanting pain. Wanting to fight.
The Fight Machine is an excellent title, however bland it sounds. It speaks volumes about the evolution, or de-evolution in certain respects, of two principal characters. The dichotomy of their lives is as striking as is it organic. We all know people from various walks of life who love or are inspired by the same passions. Sport is one of many such passions, and so are boxing, wrestling, and MMA. What director Hunt and his team do with this movie is take that notion of being passionate about something, or being inextricably drawn to something, and give it poetic masochism. Honestly, as strange as the term “poetic masochism” sounds, it nevertheless feels like an à propos way to describe what Fight Machine is aiming for.
By the same token, one can be passionate about changing one’s life because of something they believe are stuck to. Just as one individual is drawn to a new fascination, so too can another person be repelled after living through it for so many years. It’s a very rich material that Andrew Thomas Hunt handles with a unique directorial wand. Make no mistake about it. The Fight Machine is often very violent and graphic, not to mention its depiction of drug consumption with hallucinatory side effects. The bloodshed and madness are window dressing for the film’s lyricism.
Underneath the rough exterior is a duology of tales that explore what it is like to be a young man. Paul berates his father for not teaching him to “be a man.” This perceived lack of life experience prompts him to engage in activities that land him into trouble and inflict physical toil. Conversely, Rob knows all about pain. He himself fights and sees his uncle get knocked around often enough. He is coming into his own, but through different means, such as practicing haiku with his potential girlfriend Katie (Sana Asad). Jealousy is aroused when learning that a rival poet is getting their work published. The family’s state is a sad, unfortunate affair, yet there is a lot of love in their house. His dad clearly loves him, as does his uncle. He loves them back, only he’d rather not follow in their miserable footsteps.
From top to bottom, The Fight Machine is gifted with a great cast. Both leads are excellent in conveying their characters’ frustrations and the emotional toll their lives and failures take. Noah Dalton Danby is superb as Tom, a sweet-natured, fun-loving loser fighter. He knows his best days are behind him, yet he keeps on smiling as much as he can. Legendary Canadian Michael Ironside has a supporting role as Paul’s boxing trainer, Lou. It’s a brilliantly nuanced role. He doesn’t push Paul excessively into the world of bare-knuckle boxing, yet he’s always ready to give a comforting tap on the shoulder when the young man expresses his lack of fear in the face of certain pain. Lou’s a little bit worried about Paul’s behaviour, but also sees an opportunity to earn some money, and money talks.
Finally, the actual fisticuffs are shot, editing, and graced with sound design that will have viewers squirming. Nothing is too over the top as the filmmakers adopt a strategy to depict the harsh reality of this underground fighting universe. The quickness of swings, ducks, jabs to the sides, all of it is conveyed in ways that pay tribute to how dangerous the sport is. Hockey and football are rough. Much like MMA, bare-knuckle fighting is completely insane.
Hopefully, The Fight Machine gets its due once it leaves the festival circuit. Its title suggests there won’t be much to the story. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has strong characters, depth, and pathos. It’s also darkly poetic, like a haiku that ends on a less than an altruistic note. Not a bad one per se, just one that suggests people change in surprising ways sometimes. It might be one of the best sports films of the past few years. A knockout.
The 26th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival will run from July 14 – August 3, 2022.