Thursday, September 27, 2007

­BFF: Strength and Honour

­This is one I just barely got to see; In the Land of Merry Misfits started late and had a short attached, so it got out at 9:37 when Strength & Honour was scheduled for 9:30. Fortunately, it was running a bit late, and I managed to snag a seat up front just before Mark Mahon and Michael Madsen started talking (Mahon drops "y'know" into his sentences even more than I do).

Not a bad little movie, and it was kind of neat to see Madsen play something other than his usual tough-guy role - and, yeah, that's kind of a weird thing to say when the movie features a big bare-knuckle boxing tournament. Also kind of amusing is that since there were no opening credits, I spent a good chunk of the movie wondering who that Vinnie Jones-looking guy playing the heavy was... Only to discover it was Vinnie Jones.

(Hey, it was quarter of ten after a full day at work and already seeing a movie that hurt my brain and not having a lot of down-time because of the festival. I'm entitled.)

Strength and Honour

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Strength and Honour is likely not a movie I see outside of a festival setting, because it looked to combine a couple of genres I'm not particularly fond of - the "poor and miserable Irish people" movie and the boxing movie - and I'm not a particular fan of Michael Madsen. I would have missed out; this is certainly a movie that's better than its trappings might indicate.

It certainly doesn't waste much time heaping misery on Sean Kelleher (Madsen) and his family: In the first ten minutes or so, a sparring session ends with Sean's brother leaves the younger man dead, and then we flash forward seven years to see his wife Shannon in the hospital, dying from a nasty blood disease. Soon after she is laid to rest, Sean's son Mikey (Luke Whelton) falls ill, and the doctor says it will cost three hundred thousand dollars to get him the treatment he needs in America. The solution, obviously, is to enter a "Traveler" (Irish gypsies; remember the "pikeys" from Snatch?) bare-knuckle boxing tournament, even though he promised his wife he would never fight again.

Would this tournament ("The Puck") really have a two hundred fifty thousand Euro prize? Heck, would many Travelers have the ten thousand Euro entry fee? I kind of doubt it, but the film does a pretty good job of glossing over that inconvenient question by giving us Vinnie Jones as the reigning six-time champion, Smasher O'Driscoll. Even before the idea of Sean going after the Puck starts to germinate at all, we learn that Smasher has recently been cleared of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of someone in the last Puck. Jones embraces his typecasting and plays Smasher as a vicious sociopath; any fighting tournament with him in it is going to have to have high stakes. It's an outsize performance for what is basically a small-scale drama, but the film needs him to be a monster.

That's in part because Madsen's Sean is so very good. Madsen's normally a guy that you'd expect to find in Jones's role, but he's surprisingly good as a big softie. His Cork accent sounds genuine and working-class enough to my admittedly American ears - he doesn't bury its inherently gravely nature in order to sound more Irish - but it's his body language that sells the character. Sean is beaten down by the events that open the movie, and only manages to hide or forget that around his son sporadically. When he moves into the Traveler campground, he projects a note-perfect combination of shame and new-found belonging, especially as the McGrath family makes the Kellehers feel welcome. We hardly ever see Sean angry, which probably would have been the easy way to play it.

The rest of the cast is memorable, too. Michael Rawley is quite likable as Chaser McGrath, the young boxer Sean trains with who comes to regard the older man as a father figure, and Gail Fitzpatrick makes his Mammy the sort of woman that one doesn't mess with under any circumstances. Patrick Bergin lends quiet authority as the Traveler clan's leader; Richard Chamberlain a somewhat more boisterous presence as Sean's and Chaser's trainer. Even Myles Horgan's Barry Lacey (Sean's affable best friend and co-worker) and Sheridan Mahon's Coco McGrath (Chaser's sister and Mikey's babysitter) stick in the audience's mind. Youngster Luke Whelton winds up being the weakest link; he seems to overdo the cuteness a bit.

First-time writer/director Mark Mahon is partly to blame for that; he really doesn't write his characters with many shades of gray, so it makes sense that just as Smasher is very nasty, Sean is very good, Mammy is very passionate... Well, Mikey's going to be very innocent, and the kid just doesn't have the experience to make a fully rounded character out of that. Mahon and his cast do wind up doing a fine job of taking a worn premise and adding the details and polish that make it an enjoyable movie. He has a few nifty directorial flourishes; I especially like the stylized opening segment.

By the time it was over, this movie had impressed me. Not just because it got me to enjoy subject matter that I normally have little interest in; that's too specific and subjective to be that big a deal. In broader terms, though, it's a good example of a potentially forgettable movie executed well, and those are always nice to see.

Also at EFC.

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