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On DVD/Blu-ray, Special "James Caan Co-Starring With Lumbering Lummoxes" Edition: A FIGHTING MAN (2014) and THE OUTSIDER (2014)

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A FIGHTING MAN
(Canada - 2014)


Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and once in a while, a combination of forces that, under any normal circumstances, would portend certain doom actually turns out to have unexpected merit.  Consider the case of A FIGHTING MAN, a low-budget, straight-to-DVD Canadian-made drama that would appear to be the epitome of every melodramatic boxing cliche you've ever seen going back to the 1930s Warner Bros. programmers. Consider that it stars Dominic Purcell, the once-promising PRISON BREAK star-turned-lumbering charisma-vacuum whose constant employment is one of the great mysteries of the modern DTV era. Consider that it's written and directed by veteran Canadian hack Damian Lee, who's somehow managed to be in the business of making movies for 30 years without ever making a good one (yes, Purcell and Lee also teamed on last year's abysmal BREAKOUT). There's absolutely no reason for A FIGHTING MAN to be anything but a steaming shit sandwich, but...this is actually...pretty good? Lee's script piles on a checklist of tropes and contrivances. Purcell is Sailor O'Connor, an aging ex-boxer with a record somewhat south of mediocre. He's not even worthy of being called a has-been. He's a never-was.  If Sailor O'Connor was an actor, his stage name would be "Dominic Purcell." Sailor's only claim to fame is that, while he's lost almost all of his fights, he's never been knocked down. He hasn't been in the ring in four years, but wants to fight the proverbial One Last Fight.  And it's not for the obligatory One Last Shot at Redemption:  it's because he needs the money to give his fiery, cancer-stricken Irish mom Rose (Sheila McCarthy, thickly laying on the feisty Maureen O'Hara sass) one last trip to the old country since she's got six months to live. He's too proud to accept a handout from his trainers Brother Albright (James Caan) and Max (Michael Ironside), and he won't be talked out of fighting by his mom or by concerned Father Brennan (co-producer Kim Coates), who seems to spend more time fretting over Sailor than he spends in church.  Sailor's opponent is King Solomon (Izaak Smith), a cocky and ambitious young fighter who's trying to escape his hellish life in the projects with his crack-addict mother (Emma Campbell). King needs a fight because he's been reduced to appearing in porn flicks to make ends meet and all he wants is to marry his pregnant girlfriend Peg (Jenessa Grant).


There's also Louis Gossett, Jr. hamming it up with a ridiculous Jamaican accent as King's irascible trainer Cubby, Adam Beach as reptilian promoter Fast Eddie, who's as big a conniving, untrustworthy piece of shit as his name would imply, famed trainer Freddie Roach as himself, and Famke Janssen as Diane, a recovering alcoholic linked to Sailor through a past tragedy that haunts both of them to this day.  Lee also manages to cram in some mid-fight contractions for Peg, a visit to a bar for Diane where she almost falls off the wagon, and a traumatic backstory from Sailor's childhood about his abusive, drunken father that explains why he's the bullheaded fighter he is and how nothing can knock him down. Lee's structure of the film is interesting in the way that the fight is already underway at the very beginning, and between rounds, we're given the fragmented flashbacks detailing the events that led up to the fight we're seeing, and the timelines converge by the end.  I never would've guessed a straight-to-DVD Damian Lee joint starring Dominic Purcell would have an ambitious Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu structure combined with the profound sense of melancholy and grief you'd find in the EXOTICA/THE SWEET HEREAFTER heyday of Atom Egoyan, where all the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put in place and you see how everything fits together in the end. Yes, it's hokey and manipulative, but its straight-faced sincerity sucks you in.  And for all the cheap shots I've taken at Purcell, he may have found his perfect role with Sailor O'Connor, whose terrible boxing record, dead-eyed stare, monotone mumble, and the shuffling, tired gait of a defeated man with nothing left to lose and who's had nothing but shitty cards dealt to him for his whole life allow the actor to use his lackluster screen presence to his utmost advantage. To quote the poet laureate Harry Callahan, "A man's got to know his limitations," and while Purcell looks comatose when he has to do action movies, here, he's perfect. Look, I'm not saying this is some undiscovered classic or anything. We're not talking ROCKY or THE SET-UP or THE HARDER THEY FALL here--it's a maudlin and overly earnest B-movie for sure, but it somehow works, even as it plows head-first into shameless man-weepie territory by the end. Maybe it's Purcell finally finding a role that suits his somber persona, maybe it's the better-than-expected supporting cast (Caan is very good, and really, you had me at "Caan and Ironside as his trainers"), but against all odds, A FIGHTING MAN is an unexpectedly not terrible surprise. Purcell and Lee...who knew?  Eye of the tiger, guys.  Eye of the tiger. (R, 88 mins)


THE OUTSIDER
(US - 2014)

Caan also turns up as the villain in THE OUTSIDER, which marks veteran British actor Craig Fairbrass' first attempt at becoming a headlining action star in America.  Fairbrass starred in a couple of British horror films that became mid '90s video store staples (NIGHTSCARE and PROTEUS), and frequently turns up in various D-grade fare like Uwe Boll's FAR CRY, the Randy Couture actioner HIJACKED, and the Dominic Purcell dud VIKINGDOM, but he's best-known for TV's EASTENDERS and for his voice work in various CALL OF DUTY video games. He's got an imposing, square-jawed presence with a Vinnie Jones "fookin''ell, mate!" demeanor that could make him an acceptable fourth-string Liam Neeson with the right vehicle, but THE OUTSIDER, which surrounds Fairbrass with the best supporting cast that 2002 had to offer, isn't it. Utterly generic in every way, THE OUTSIDER, conceived by Fairbrass and writer/director Brian A. Miller (a repeat purveyor of completely forgettable Wal-Mart bargain-bin clutter like the 50 Cent-produced CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE and the Stephen Dorff cop thriller OFFICER DOWN), is patched together from elements of THE LIMEY and TAKEN (Fairbrass is even referred to as "the Limey" at one point).  Fairbrass is tough-as-nails British mercenary Lex Walker, called away from a contract gig in the Middle East when his daughter Samantha turns up dead from an apparent drug overdose in Los Angeles. When he arrives at the morgue to identify the body, it's not his daughter, who went missing from her job at tech giant Most Industries a week earlier.  Walker doesn't get anywhere with evasive Most CEO Karl Schuuster (Caan, who couldn't have put in more than two, maybe three days on the set), who obviously knows something he's not telling. Walker teams up with Samantha's waitress friend Margo (Shannon Elizabeth), and her sometime boyfriend Ricky (Johnny Messner), who leads him right to Samantha (Melissa Ordway).  She had to fake her death because Schuuster's goons were coming for her after she uncovered a massive identity theft scam he was masterminding from the Most headquarters.  Meanwhile, Walker forms an uneasy alliance with cynical detective Klein (Jason Patric) to bring down Schuuster and expose his shady dealings.


Lethargically paced and drably shot, THE OUTSIDER offers no surprises or suspense, with Patric and Caan sleepwalking through their performances, everyone else unconvincingly spouting vague techno-jargon, and Fairbrass proving to be a dull action hero.  Sequence after sequence follows the same formula:  Walker blusters and bulldogs his way into somewhere, wants ta ask someone some queestions 'bout 'is daw 'er, gets some guff, and promptly smashes the person's head into a wall or through a door until they staaht tawkin'! The kind of movie that provides an adequate level of white noise while you peruse your Netflix queue for something else to watch, THE OUTSIDER is as bland and paint-by-numbers as it gets.  Nothing overtly terrible about it, but there's really nothing to see here.  (R, 94 mins)

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