Film Reviews:

Fight Club

(David Fincher, US, 1999)

Fight Club is a rarity in today's carefully controlled film market: a genuine cult item. A wide-reaching satiric summation of being young, well-off, male, American and miserably employed at the end of the twentieth century, Fight Club swoops breathlessly through a litany of buzzword ills, including cancer, advertising, body building, crises of masculinity, car crashes, corporate irresponsibility and terrorism. Viewed post-September 11th Fight Club seems dark prophecy, with its images of plane crashes, exploding skyscrapers, and undirected male anger focused by a demagogic terrorist leader. It also looks instantly dated, a time capsule of the moment America thought its enemies defeated, and was searching for something to hate in its own prosperity. The Narrator's cynical hope of being in an airline disaster (every time the plane banked too sharply on take-off or landing, I prayed for a crash) now seems childish, a bluff that has been called. But this is the price of having the ambition to distil the present into genuine modern art, and Fight Club is a young businessman's Trainspotting, a movie with more ideas in one scene than Reservoir Dogs and Lock Stock... can muster between them. It is also far more confrontational than comfortable ready-made cult films, its closest precursor Oliver Stone's equally derided Natural Born Killers. Director David Fincher uses his trademark gloom to good effect, coupled with an array of creatively used computer effects and special effects by Rob Bottin, which have the hyper-real urgency of a vivid nightmare.

Ed Norton is superb as the unnamed wage slave white collar worker billed simply as Narrator, who lives only for his Swedish furniture. His endless voice-over puts us right inside his head, and is so relentless, so mordantly witty, so gleeful in its barrage of dark one-liners that it becomes the film's greatest asset, a pure voice of male alienation, distilled, and given the laconic attitude of prime Bogart. He has the horrible, hilarious idea of attending therapy groups for illnesses he doesn't have, just to feel glad to be alive. There he meets skid row Goth girl Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who takes a sleazy break from her usual period dramas, and is convincing in a contrived, Hollywood kind of way. Marla is a fellow healthy impostor at the groups, simultaneously intriguing and repulsive the Narrator. Keeping away from her, he is befriended by on a business flight by charismatic soap salesman Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt.

After a night of drinking and cod-philosophy, Durden stops in the parking lot, and invites his new friend to hit him, as a way of exploring his masculinity. He does, and a playful brawl develops. Attracting a crowd, the fight becomes a planned event, and swiftly accelerates into Fight Club, a bare-knuckle boxing club, where salary-men and minimum wage slaves battle, in the process re-discovering their shared manliness, while beating each other to a bloody mess. The Narrator moves in with Durden, into a house that is derelict in a artificial, Hollywood kind of way, while Fight Club attracts greater and greater numbers of adherents, who come to hear Durden's views on life as well as to fight. Durden finally takes Fight Club up a gear, fashioning what is now a tough fighting force into an ad hoc terrorist group called Project Mayhem. Committing creative terrorism, a stunt backfires, and a member is killed. Realising Durden is deranged, the Narrator wants out, but discovers he is implicated much deeper than he thought.

Casting Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden makes sense on one level: he fits the character, who is intended to be irresistibly charismatic, (and who has more charisma than a movie star?) And Pitt hits a career best here. But there's a big drawback too: Pitt is so recognisable, and so well known for so many rubbishy mainstream films that his persona is constantly clashing with Durden, or making the film seem hypocritical. When Durden announces, we all grew up thinking we were going to be movie stars, but were not, the fact of Pitt's celebrity adds a vicious irony to the lines. Similarly, his gym-honed physique undermines lines decrying self improvement as masturbation. But its such tension between its parts that makes Fight Club fascinating. Yes, its just another Brad Pitt film, from 20th Century Fox. But its also funny, dumb, dark, hilarious, original, heartfelt, cynical, fake and a rip off. In other words, a true one-off classic.

Region 1 DVD

DVD is the perfect medium for Fight Club. Lots of CGI effects and bloody fight action, but shot so dark that it looks like a dog on crummy old videotape. Flash frames and little visual gags that are only noticeable on perfect freeze frame. A perfectionist guys medium, for a perfectionist guys film. The Region 1 DVD comes as a two disc set, housed in a cardboard fold out sleeve, and slipcase. A booklet reprints reviews both good, and hilariously bad. Disc 1 features four commentary tracks: an interesting one from director David Fincher, a laddish, jokey one from Fincher with Norton and Pitt (and occasional Bonham-Carter comments edited in), a sporadically fascinating one from writer Chuck Palanuik and screenwriter Jim Uhls, and finally one from costume designers and special effects men which is self congratulatory and confused. Disc 2 has a wealth of deleted and alternate scenes, computer effects demonstrations and so on, far too many to list individually. The whole is beautifully designed, and perfectly sums up the contradiction inherent in the film: a supposedly anti-materialist movie presented as the ultimate collectable.

Adrian Horrocks

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