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If the Coen brothers decided to remake “Gone with the Wind” or “Star Wars”, I don’t think most critics would question it. No surprise then that a John Wayne western met a similar lack of resistance. I can’t say I’m as crazy about “True Grit” though. While largely enjoyable, it’s a genre film that’ll prove to be very forgettable, yet still worth the viewing experience.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives at a distant city to collect the remains of her father and his possessions. But after all his affairs are in order, she decides to stick around and hire a U.S. Marshall to hunt down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). If you’re wondering where the film’s title comes from, don’t worry, Mattie says it quite frequently when describing the rough persona of Deputy U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom she picks to shoot his way to justice. But before Mattie and Rooster leave town for “Indian” country, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) joins the pursuit, hoping to return Tom for a Texas trial — an idea Mattie takes issue with as she wants justice to find Chaney for her father’s murder, not a politician in another state.
Can Jeff Bridges, fresh off his Best Actor award last year and a Disney sci-fi blockbuster, fill in the eye patch once worn by John Wayne 41 years ago? Sort of. My concern is less about comparing him to Wayne than figuring out whether his role is serious or satirical. Bridges is normally stellar in most of his films, but it’s hard to listen to his accent without a snicker on deck.
The real gem of this film aren’t heavy hitters — Bridges, Brolin or Damon — but Steinfeld. In place of a 20-something Kim Darby in the original film, this pre-teen takes on the lead role of Ross, the no-nonsense daughter who won’t stop until her family has received justice for the death of her father, with a confidence that makes Juno look like a poser.
Damon expands his performance resume as a prudish authority figure, who has little patience for bending the law or allowing a 14-year-old girl to insult him. In short, he’s a tool…but he doesn’t become a likable tool. Brolin’s performance is equally as baffling as Bridge’s, but he has a fraction of the screen time to do anything other than function through clichés.
The real winner of the holiday season is “The Fighter”. Director, David O. Russell, is an odd choice for an inspirational sports movie, with “Flirting with Disaster” and “I Heart Huckabees” to his credit, but the dramatic depth goes far deeper than Sandra Bullock’s weak attempt at cinematic sincerity.
Based on a true story, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is a boxer with one more shot at the championship before age takes him into early retirement. To make matters worse, his brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), can’t help but relive his glory days as the boxer who once took down Sugar Ray Leonard, but since then has become a fraction of his former self. Underweight and always late, Dicky’s job as Mick’s trainer causes immense personal and professional trouble, especially since manager and mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), can’t help but love Dicky at the sake of her relationship with Micky. But Mick finds new hope with his girlfriend, Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), who helps him stand up to his overbearing family.
Bale may have made waves last year for his short fuse and bad temper on set, but “The Fighter” serves as further proof that pulling a “Tom Cruise” doesn’t mean the end for pure on-screen talent. Wahlberg is likable even in the worst of films, but Bale is the real star here. Who’s the real fighter in this one? Definitely Bale as Dicky, a former boxer, fighting the evils of addiction. Like “The Machinist”, Bale makes his performance a full body endeavor, becoming skin and bones for the sake of art. The dude may have a temper, but his acting here is top notch.
If sports movies aren’t your thing, “The Fighter” is still a worthy character study. This is what happens when Rocky’s older brother becomes jealous and tries to take down the family legacy with him. Director, Russell, is a stranger to the genre, favoring more indie-style films, thus he cares less about the genre’s conventions and more about grasping what the underdog story can look like through a new lens. The film isn’t outlined by fight scenes, but key moments that occur outside the ring.
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