Gonna Fly Now, by Aaron Pinkston
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to make a straight-forward boxing film without slipping easily into the many well-worn cliches that have marked the many great boxing films that came before. Despite being a rather niche sport, boxing provides a narrative too compelling and easy to work for much more. The underdog tales, the over-the-hill comebacks, the brash up-and-comers are tried and true and work. The only way to work around this into new territory is to do something similar to Noah Buschel’s Glass Chin – use the sport to provide character context that can blend itself into a moody and headey thriller.
Indeed, Glass Chin realizes that the boxing narrative is well known and doesn’t shy away from namechecking and playing against its predecessors. The opening of the film, for example, full-on embraces one of the most iconic moments of the genre, with Bud “The Saint” Gordon running down a city street in a hoodie, with a dynamic song filling up the soundtrack (in this case, soulful “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” by Deniece Williams). Soon after, Gordon quotes his former coach saying that if you run to the Rocky theme, you’re sure to become a sentimental fighter. It’s a clever nod to the genre while announcing that this boxing tale is going to be far from sentimental.
Bud Gordon (Corey Stoll) is an out of the game former champ who had the fatal flaw of a “weak chin.” After an unsuccessful attempt at running a restaurant in suburban New Jersey, he deals with bookie J.J. Cook (Billy Crudup) for a job as a debt collector. Inevitably, Gordon gets mixed up in some bad circumstances, especially while working with wildcard Roberto Flash. In a small subplot, Gordon is training a hot prospect for a big fight at Madison Square Garden, the palace of combat sport. Though it directly leads toward the film’s conclusion, because the subplot is far from the focus, the played boxing drama storyline doesn’t hold the film down.
But, truthfully, Glass Chin isn’t concerned about the plot – if it were, the rather thin thriller elements could be easily buffed up. Without the ponderous conversations that fill Glass Chin, the narrative could probably be wrapped up in a cool 30 minutes. Besides being a moody piece, the film is also very much a character study, profiling Gordon and his relationships with every supporting character. Gordon is an archetypal character, so not a lot of effort has to be put in for him to be fully drawn, but his interactions are compelling and build the world in interest ways. Nearly every scene features a one-on-one conversation, only sometimes feeling like a script exercise (usually when it features one of Gordon’s co-workers). It is a smart way to give every character a stake and efficiently move through the narrative.
I first noticed Corey Stoll in the underwhelming weekend-in-a-cabin drama Helena from the Wedding, but he first grabbed my attention in the brooding and hilarious turn as a young Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. He would later play the pivotal role in House of Cards’ best storyline, as tragic politician Peter Russo. Brooding and tragic, you say? That sounds like the lead in a boxing drama. He fits the role well, even without having to display any physicality. Strangely, he doesn’t have to do much dramatic heavy lifting either while going for an overall cool and maintained persona. Across from him, I’m not exactly sure what to make of Billy Crudup. As the low-level crime lord he is equal parts enigmatic and dangerous, which is a good place to be. The performance seems a bit too knowing, though – not helped by the film’s style of characters facing the camera during dialogue. His strange obsession with digital technology, for example, is a weirdly out-of-place recurring joke that is played with no subtlety.
The real star of the film, however, is Marin Ireland as Gordon’s new-agey live-in girlfriend, Ellen. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the two would work well in a relationship. The comfortable delivery in their dialogue heavy scenes, emotional chemistry, and natural performances from both actors give their relationship a really vital feeling. There isn’t a lot of context for their relationship and we don’t really see them go through much together, but I felt their connection and wanted them to be together. For Ireland, she could have too easily played hard on the broader elements of her personality or as a scared damsel. When she needs to be emotional, she does so quietly, but with power. Glass Chin probably has too small a profile for Ireland to get a lot of attention, but she is otherwise very worthy of discussion as one of the best supporting performances of the year so far.