In independent film, emotion is everything. Since budgets don’t allow for much visual flair, locational variance, or narrative diversity, movies of this nature must rely on people, their personalities, and the feelings that derive from same to get the message across. Most of the time, that’s all said cinema has to offer. Originally released as Rigged, but now renamed Fight Night, Jonathan Dillon’s feature film debut falls into a lot of the standard outsider traps. The cinematography is desaturated to the point of almost nonexistence, and the script (by Splinter scribe Ian Shorr) is so desperate to be a post-modern Million Dollar Baby that it practically exudes Eastwood’s sweat. But if you cast aside the obvious attempts at anti-mainstream grit and faux fictional realism, you find a surprisingly intelligent and heartfelt film. Too bad then that the boxing blocks the audience from really getting to know these marginal characters.
For Michael Dublin, the last few years have been a blur. Since leaving the employment of gangster fight promoter Clark Richter, he’s been trying to hustle matches in the highly illegal underground boxing scene. Unfortunately, his lack of ethics and smooth talk swagger gets him in more trouble that his pugilists can make up for. After a particularly pesky con, Dublin is saved by gritty, no nonsense gal Katherine Parker. Quick with her hands and lethal when need be, our huckster sees instant success. Indeed, within weeks, the newly named “Kid Vixen” is the talk of the lawless scarp circuit. Naturally, Richter is aware of the situation, and does whatever he can to preserve his power. But as Parker continues winning, the heavy can no longer ignore her potential. Dublin also sees dollar signs, but his ex-boss may be about to make an offer he can’t refuse…that is, if he wants to live.
Rigged/Fight Night is as schizophrenic as its two names suggest. One moment, we are watching a waif like young woman beat the ever loving snot out of some roided up Central Casting cliché. She even battles a meat puppet whose cowboy hat becomes an object of comedic personal pride. But then writer Shorr and direct Dillon drop all the backdoor Fight Club junk and actually let the characters talk. What comes out is so intriguing, so against everything else the movie wants to accomplish that you can’t help but be thrown off a little. For all their faults, their complete and utter cinematic contrivance and lack of real world authenticity, Dublin and Parker are interesting, especially when they stop talking shop and start talking…life. Had Rigged removed 10 or 15 minutes of the so-called action sequences and stuck with the story of a small town boy struggling to escape his past with the help of an equally alienated girl, we’d have something special. Instead, Dillon tries to have it both ways, and as a result, he undermines each,
Indeed, the fight scenes require a massive grain of suspension of disbelief seasoning. It’s not that Parker couldn’t contend with some of the beef sides she’s paired against. No, she’s so dominating, so Mike Tyson in her proposed talent that there’s no suspense in what transpires within the squared circle. It’s all choppy edited, thrash power musical scoring, and our duo walking away with fattened wallets. Even when her opponent is evenly matched (the aforementioned spit-kicker), she’s unbelievable - literally. Dublin also offers his own unique set of problems. He’s a fairly inept trickster, unable to get away with many of the scams we see him pull. It makes one wonder how he managed to survive this long, especially with the villainous reach of Richter being so overpowering. Indeed, this is one bad guy who has to be actually beaten…to be beaten.
Since the neo-noir dramatics don’t quite gel, it’s up to the more personal stuff to save Rigged/Fight Night, and it almost does. Indeed, thanks to Chad Ortis’ Tom Cruise take on Dublin and Rebecca Neienswander’s “is she or isn’t she” sexual ambiguity, we are willing to follow our leads through some fairly precarious plotpoints. There is an initial meeting where the two have a jailhouse talk that’s quite effective and a long road trip and eventual bus ride gives them other moments of meaningful conversation. Sadly, the film fails to find the same balance within the ancillary characters. Dublin’s mother is introduced and then almost immediately swept away, while an important woman with whom our hero has a history gets equally short shrift. Sadly, Parker’s past is all inference - talk without a face or performance to help us understand. Even an eventual homecoming is vague.
And then there is the look of this film. Cranking down the color to make everything bleak and monochromatic would definitely work had Dillon understood the first thing about black and white cinematics. Instead, this is a clear case of an almost homemade digital production getting its glare turned off to try and make something visually profound. It doesn’t work. The style by DP Hanuman Brown-Eagle announces itself so often that you get tired of the attention grabbing. Add in the less than effective subplots involving Richter, his link to Dublin, and their last act showdown and you can see where Rigged goes astray. Even with a name change, this is the kind of movie that gives other similarly mounted efforts a real case of the respectability heebie jeebies. You can just see the other filmmakers, desperate to get their dreams off the ground, looking at this overly ambitious attempt and more or less giving up.
Still, there is something inherently attractive about the relationship between our two leads. It’s not sexual - that is made clear many times. It’s also not professional, since only one party to the agreement holds up their end of the bargain. And it’s definitely not spiritual, since neither character has much of a soul. Indeed, the real allure of Rigged (or Fight Night - whatever you want to call it) is the growing connection between marginalized members of society’s fringe. We don’t quite root for Dublin and Parker as much as decide not to root against them and no matter who comes out of the woodwork to threaten their pact, there’s never a real fear that they won’t be there for each other. In a genre that relies on sentiment over most other motion picture possibilities, this movie makes a lot of decent decisions. It’s the ones that don’t work which ultimately threaten its entertainment viability.