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'Girlfight': A Knockout

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2000


    'Girlfight' Michelle Rodriguez plays a 17-year-old with a passion for boxing. (Screen Gems)
In a run-down boxing club in Brooklyn, where hunched old men hover in the shadows and ripped, wiry fighters flail at worn leather punch bags, Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) discovers her dream. The sullen 17-year-old wants to box with the best of them.

In the luminously understated "Girlfight," Diana's desire is deep and nonnegotiable. She doesn't want to hear dismissive comments from her father (Paul Calderon), her boxing brother (Ray Santiago) or those cocky pendejos in the club. She wants to fight. And she wants a locker.

After persuading Hector (Jaime Tirelli), a sweet-natured trainer, to coach her for $10 a session (funds she steals from her father), Diana becomes a regular at the Brooklyn Athletic Club.

Keeping her father in the dark about her new lifestyle, Diana builds herself into a fighter. First she gets some sparring action against male opponents, then a fight against another female boxer. There's a fight, too, with a male featherweight.

Diana may lack finesse, but she has this way of winning despite her shortcomings. She seems to out-will her opponents. There's another battle going on, too. Diana becomes involved with Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a good-hearted boxer who's a little wary about commitment.

Circling each other like nervous fighters, they punch and probe at each other's hearts, not quite sure what kind of move to make. Clearly, it's just a matter of time before Diana finds herself facing Adrian in the ring. Should they hit each other or hug?

"Girlfight" doesn't exactly break the rules. Like a thousand boxing movies before it, the movie's about busting free of the slums for fleeting glory, realizing your inner strength and finding a balance between sport and life.

But writer-director Karyn Kusama creates an old Hollywood-style atmosphere. This is "On the Waterfront" by way of "Flashdance" but without the cheesy conceits. There's an air of disarming innocence to the whole picture, helped considerably by Rodriguez's presence.

She's so dynamic as Diana, so full of life, so unassumingly herself, those boxing cliches feel original all over again. For Diana, after all, everything's a surprise. And when she shoves that mouth guard into her mouth, stalks her opponent and punches her gloves together, we're as nervous and hopeful as she is.

Kusama doesn't oversell the story. Diana doesn't take on world champion Apollo Creed in Philadelphia while Adrian watches giddily from the ringside, or anything like that. And you don't have to brace yourself for a slo-mo hug amid victory confetti from her tear-stricken father.

Each three-round tussle is a small and glorious episode unto itself. What really counts is how Diana feels about herself. How she measures up to her opponent each time. How she becomes the Diana she wants to be. In a movie as delicately formed as this, that's all we want.

There are a few false notes toward the end-one involving Diana's climactic face-off at home with her father and a few in the big fight with Adrian-but these are easily brushed aside. Perfection wouldn't feel right in a movie like this, anyway.

After the movie, it isn't the story that remains with us. It's Rodriguez, who becomes more appealing, formidable and beautiful by the scene. As we gradually discover, this isn't just about Diana evolving into a boxer. It's about her becoming a woman.

Girlfight (R, 110 minutes) – Contains minor boxing violence, sexual scenes and strong language.


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