As directorial head-to-heads go, Jack Huston versus Stanley Kubrick isn’t anyone’s idea of a fair fight. But that’s exactly the clash the actor and Hollywood scion sets up for himself in his directorial debut “Day of the Fight” — named for Kubrick’s famous 1951 documentary short of the same title, and likewise following an Irish-American boxer through his daily New York routine, in the hours leading up to a climactic evening match. At 108 minutes to Kubrick’s 12, Huston’s fiction feature has bulk on its side, which isn’t quite the same as weight: Padding out its episodic day-in-the-life structure with a stakes-raising melodramatic backstory, “Day of the Fight” lunges for the tear ducts while never quite ringing true, rooted less in real life than in the tradition of countless underdog boxing dramas that have gone before.
Which isn’t to say Huston’s film is unfelt or unaffecting: It knows those past films fondly, and what it borrows from others, it doesn’t borrow with a trace of cynicism. Occasionally its sincerity even rises to the level of grace, thanks in large part to a performance of crumpled physicality and palpable emotional investment by its recently embattled star Michael C. Pitt. Still, it gets increasingly hard to return that earnestness in kind as the cliché count edges into drinking-game territory, between its heavy-handed dramatic foreshadowing, cornball Noo Yawkisms, and stock characterizations. The light and shade here is all in Peter Simonite’s splendid, inky-shadowed monochrome lensing; Huston’s visual sense outweighs his screenwriting.
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“Irish Mike is back in the game,” a stray broadcaster informs us, following an introductory montage of trauma flashbacks and associated nightmares that tellingly suggests why he may have been been out of it. Mike Flannigan — or “Irish” to the running procession of pals he meets over the course of one frosty Brooklyn morning — is a former middleweight champion whose career was flattened by a DUI crash that landed him a brain injury and several years behind bars. (Other victims were less fortunate.) Now free and sober, he’s secured a controversial comeback fight at Madison Square Garden against a newer, stronger champ. With nobody fancying his chances, Mikey places a hefty bet on himself with a neighborhood bookie. Viewers can guess at the payoff.
Hunched in sweats, his face seasoned and scarred under a sweat-slicked blond thatch, Pitt is scarcely recognizable as the smooth young tough of “Boardwalk Empire,” which is to the film’s benefit — his Mike walks with the wary, guarded stride of a man reintroducing himself to the world. Which is, for much of the running time, what he does: In a series of talky vignettes, Mike makes contact and makes amends with an assortment of people from his past.
Some, like the sassy, salt-of-the-earth proprietress at his local diner, are casual acquaintances, though the encounters get more intimate and fraught as the day wears on: a kindly uncle (Steve Buscemi in a brief cameo) who offers him a family heirloom to pawn; his tough-loving trainer Stevie (Ron Perlman); his onetime best friend Patrick (John Magaro, bringing warmth and good humor to cornball dialogue), now a Catholic priest dispensing street wisdom between sermons. The hardest reunions are reserved for last: a nervy but eventually peace-making lunch with his wounded ex-wife Jessica (Nicolette Robinson), now a hard-up bartender and lounge singer raising their teenage daughter on her own; and a visit to the care home where his father (Joe Pesci), once an abusive tyrant, is now diminished and stricken with dementia.
This sheer accumulation of narrative baggage means that “Day of the Fight” cycles through several emotional crescendoes before we even reach the climactic bout. As Huston attempts to top what has gone before, the film lapses into kitsch excess, not least in an overwrought sequence that cross-cuts between Mike’s eventual walk to the ring and Jessica’s tremulous piano-bar rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” complete with a single tear sliding its way down her cheek in dewy closeup.
Huston’s actors are good enough not to need such manufactured pathos; the characters’ interior pain is clearly expressed without the assistance of lumpen lines like, “You were always my hero, even when you weren’t.” As an homage to Kubrick’s short, “Day of the Fight” has little of its inspiration’s observational economy; it doesn’t have enough trust in its simplest, most humane virtues. Still, like the bruised, beaten-up fighter at the center of all such films, Huston’s debut has heart where its feet fail it.
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