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Heart
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by Jack Sommersby

"Solid Boxing Movie With Solid Acting"
4 stars

Barely released in U.S. theatres, it's uncommonly perceptive and wonderfully textured.

As the punch-drunk boxer Eddie Brennan in the affecting Heart, Brad Davis, usually an acquired taste I’ve long resisted, gives his most detailed performance to date, and he’s the movie’s chief virtue. Davis temporarily shot to fame as the drug-smuggling college student in the odious Midnight Express, and while some were taken in by his acting some of us recognized that he was no more than mediocre, which was evident in how easily his co-stars, John Hurt and Randy Quaid, effortlessly blew him off the screen. After this Davis did another couple of star turns in the lackluster movies A Small Circle of Friends and Querelle, and failed to impress; then there were several appearances in television movies that weren’t any better, and it was apparent Davis simply lacked both the charisma and talent to be a movie star. So one would think that he wouldn’t fare any better in Heart, but he’s reasonably interesting throughout and vivifies just enough so we’re held by his understated interpretation. As the movie opens, Eddie is getting pummeled in the ring in a small-time fight with only a one-hundred-dollar payout, and the man he’s fighting isn’t exactly enough to set the world on fire; nearing the age of thirty-five, Eddie’s greatest achievement was seven years prior when he was an up-and-comer and almost chalked up a victory in a fight that determined whether Eddie or his opponent would be a contender for the title -- Eddie happens to be eating in front of his television when a boxing show is playing footage from the fight, and with this still a painful memory he can’t finish his meal and sits in his chair for the rest of the night emotionally drained. But in a story twist right out of Rocky he’s given a miraculous second chance when offered the chance for a fight worth five-hundred dollars to fight a ten-years-younger up-and-comer who boasts eight wins and no defeats; the fighter’s owner feels only one more win is necessary to put his fighter into the big time, but he’s having problems finding a suitable opponent who won’t be able to win but is good enough so the fight won’t look like it’s been set up to be a cake walk. Initially, Eddie isn’t particularly enthusiastic over the opportunity: he works an undemanding job in a food-distribution warehouse to make ends meet; and because he’s lost his last three fights, he doesn’t think he has a chance. Yet his sleazy, manipulative manager Nicky (Steve Buscemi), who deals in stolen goods, talks him into it, and despite the objections from his live-in girlfriend Jeannie (Frances Fisher), who is there every morning to see Eddie struggling to breathe through his disfigured nose upon awakening, he thinks winning this fight will bring him some television-aired fights and decides to take a few weeks off to train. (Eddie’s understanding boss allows him the time off but advises him to take stock of his life, that he needs to decide whether he wants to progress with his job or keep trying to be the kind of boxer he’s no longer capable of being.) Eddie and his longtime trainer Buddy (Robinson Frank Ado) start doing their time in the gym, only Nicky, without consulting Eddie, succumbs to pressure from the other fighter’s owner for Eddie to throw the fight for four times the money. Knowing Eddie would never agree to take a dive, Nicky, after promising Buddy half of the money, decides not to tell him.

The movie gets an intriguing dramatic going on in Nicky’s and Buddy’s hoping for Eddie to lose so as not to be on the receiving end of the underworld figures who’ll be unleashed upon them should Buddy win, and the broken-down Eddie steadily gaining confidence in his abilities that have not completely deserted him. It’s that rare boxing movie where those in a fighter’s corner are actually hoping for him to lose, and luckily Heart doesn’t indulge in the many boxing-movie cliches that can make an audience sigh to the heavens in boredom. The debuting director James Lemmo photographed the William Lustig-helmed B-pictures Vigilante and Maniac Cop, and his work here is unfussy yet expressive in that he gets in and out of scenes with competence while keeping the proceedings visually astute; he also co-wrote the adequate screenplay, and despite a few bits that don’t quite work (I could have done without an inebriated Buddy spelling out to a bartender that it takes “heart” to go the distance in ten-round fights over a career, thus italicizing the title's meaning), the movie is absorbing stuff from start to finish. The beautiful music score by newcomers Geoff Levin and Chris Many manages to give melancholy a good name, and the acute editing by Larry Marinelli, especially in the boxing sequences that are superior to the chunkily staged ones in Rocky, is ahead of us by a crucial second or two and drives everything forward with agility. I was surprised at how shameless yet successful Heart is in getting us to care about its central lead character considering he’s not exactly the most complex person in the world; we respond to him, I think, because Lemmon is confident enough in presenting a blue-collar Everyman who needn’t attention-getting, trumped-up eccentricities to get us to emotionally respond to him. Eddie could be anybody who’s fallen on hard times and finds the strength within to give a seemingly-impossible challenge his best try, and not so as to achieve any kind of “redemption” but to be able to live with himself because he’s giving it his all. Unlike Nicky and Buddy, Eddie isn’t willing to sell himself out for easy money, and because Davis is unexpectedly persuasive in his role we can respond to the character on a level so we have something of a stake in him. In the supporting ranks, Buscemi is wonderfully duplicitous as the untrustworthy Nicky (a non-punch-drunk person could easily see through him, which is why Eddie is the only one susceptible enough to let himself be managed by him); Ado takes his overly familiar role and infuses it with feeling and gravitas; and though Jeannie is basically a standardized love interest, Fisher’s focus and alert reserve make up for her character having the most tired of the dialogue. But it’s Davis who holds the movie together. Granted, when the camera rests on him in a prolonged close-up he just isn’t up to it in that he’s unable to suggest an active inner life, but he presents the character well enough so as to pass a cursory inspection. Spectacularly deglamourized, Davis looks the part, all right, and he gets so many little tics and nuances right that you can overlook his weaknesses; you can believe that Eddie is incorruptible and innately decent, which are two difficult things for an actor to pull off without going didactic on us. Davis is terrific, and so for the most part is Heart.

Only available on a region-2 DVD.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29233&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/07/15 01:10:25
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USA
  01-Nov-1987 (R)

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