18 March 2013

Busted Up

United States – 1986
Director – Conrad E. Palmisano
MCA Home Video, 1987, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 33 minutes

If you’ve ever wondered why the hero so often makes a boneheaded deal with the villain, one that contradicts what we’ve been let to expect by the last hour of the movie, then film theorists have an answer for you. Movies are like dreams they say, offering us a vision of the impossible or improbable fantasy. Continuing in this vein, later critics rely on the Freudian psychoanalytical assertion that dreams are a manifestation of subconscious desire.

I suppose that this makes sense considering that the hero’s bargain flies in the face of logic and lived experience (both his and the audiences) which tells us that “might makes right”, that he is good because he wins. Instead, these movies proffer a reflection of that in the claim that right makes might, that the good guy wins because he is good. (Or at least normatively. He should have even if he doesn’t, therein lies “tragedy”, that generic leakage of reality into fantasy that seems intent on capturing our trust.) It’s a rather large leap to expect that devious characters we’ve just been led for the last hour and a half-plus into despising will suddenly be humbled into keeping up their side of the bargain. A roller coaster ride of emotions going from hate to trust in less time than it takes to digest your corn-nuts, but that’s the point. Not only does it make for some compelling tension and storytelling but it also feeds our more modern, more secular (Democratic) desire to believe that for the little guys (us!) whose reality is far too often dictated by the whims of Capitalist might) there really is an inviolable and objective moral justice out there, somewhere.

Such is the fantasy of Earl Bird, an ex-con, single father, amateur boxer who wants to believe, has to believe that adherence to a simple moral code will bring him absolution. Boxing has always been a sport imbued with blue collar mythos, and indeed, for Bird, boxing is just a fucking job, but this particular job just happens to be the foundation of an old neighborhood. When the gym he co-owns with his partner/trainer Angie (Stan Shaw) is threatened with a hostile buyout, Bird agrees to wager the fate of the entire neighborhood on a single fight. Presciently named “The Foundation,” the gym serves as a literal community center for a parade of old-timers and troubled kids, and as a metaphorical anchor in a neighborhood suffering economic decline. And, in case the drama wasn’t tangible enough, in steps Bird’s “ex-old-lady” Simone (Irene Cara,) a failed pop singer doing a low rent Irene Cara act in a strip club and now demanding Bird’s retirement and the foundation of a cozy family life.

And oh what a feeling it is now that the fate of an entire demographic hinges on a single boxing match. The battle between Bird and Tenera (who, thorough unexplained flashbacks we are led to understand killed Bird’s pal in prison) although mined for second act tension and inspiring montages, is only a distraction. The real conflict is between flannel and denim community struggling for survival and (white)wine-swilling, classical music-listening capitalism intent on gentrification and “progress.” Couching this class war in the very contemporary economic depredation of the Reagan dynasty, firmly places it in the fantasy world where issues of great moral import can be decisively resolved through acts of personal heroics. Busted Up’s simpler more subtle narrative calls to mind the extreme jingoism of another 80’s "boxing" movie, 1989’s Robot Jox (Stuart Gordon) in which the Soviet Union and the USA not-so-symbolically pummel each other into spare giant-robot-parts. Humbled by Achilles’ victory and moral constitution Alexader is “saved,” and the Cold War is resolved with a friendly man-hug. If in the course of dissecting the socio-cultural symbolism of a low budget movie, I am ever again accused of reading too much into it, of expecting too much from what is claimed to be “just a movie,” I shall say; “No, this movie is expecting too much of me.”

In 1986 things turned out well for Bird’s demographic, but by the end of the decade writer/producer Damian Lee had apparently lost hope. 1989’s Boxcar Blues (aka Thunderground) found Bird (played again by Coufos) fallen on Hard Times, utterly destitute and riding the rails in the deep south, boxing for booze money. Busted Up could probably be dismissed and forgotten as a cheap, three-sequels too late Rocky knock-off with an unnecessarily jazzy score, or a less priaprismic pre-make of Bloodsport minus the screaming. Despite its grandiose trappings, Busted Up is not a grand-scheme type of movie. There is no glory, no celebrity for Busted Up’s humble, blue-collar protagonist Earl Bird, but for all its humility, the implications are nonetheless universal.

Boxcar Blues
United States - 1989
Director - David Mitchell
VCII Home Entertainment, 1991, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 36 minutes  

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