Editor’s note: In honor of this week’s “Perseverance” pro boxing show in town featuring Holly Holm and a lineup of Meadow City fighters, Dave’s Drive-In turns its focus on boxing in the movies.
Orphaned by her mother and alternately ignored and scorned by her father, isolated and lonely in her urban jungle of a high school, young Diana Nuñez (played by Michelle Rodriguez) has few friends and fewer prospects. That is made apparent as “Girlfight,” a 2000 film written and directed by Karyn Kusama, begins.
Then one day, Diana follows her brother Tiny into the neighborhood boxing gym where he is being trained by onetime pugilist Hector Soto. The sport’s savage beauty appeals to Diana, whose own personal demons frequently spur her to violence and trouble. It isn’t long before she cajoles Hector into training her as well.
Breaking into a male-dominated sport known for its brutality isn’t easy, even for a force of nature like Diana. The gym has no other women and thus no women’s locker room, so she finds herself using a cluttered, forgotten storage closet for that purpose. And with the scarcity of female opposition, she spars with the guys. And though she trains at least as hard as even the toughest male ring warriors around her, Diana finds the battle for respect even more arduous. Most of the boxers and trainers look down on her, with some flat out telling her that boxing is a man’s sport. The discrimination comes in different forms and for different reasons, and even those closest to her — including love interest Adrian, who dreams of turning pro — have their doubts.
Only Diana, it seems, never allows those doubts to dwell very long in her mind.
Rodriguez is marvelous in her first major film role. For much of the picture, she embodies a prototypical tough girl from the barrio, wearing an Army jacket and a scowl. After taking a particularly hard punch in a fight with one of the guys at the gym, she unleashes a hard stare that immediately and forcefully reminds us that she is no one to be trifled with. Underestimate me at your own peril, that glare seems to say. Yet, Rodriguez also shows Diana’s softer side with remarkable acting agility. In one scene, she’s sitting on a sidewalk with Adrian (Santiago Douglas), and she can’t help but look emotionally vulnerable as she tries in vain to hide her crush on him.
Of course, Rodriguez followed “Girlfight” with secondary roles in the pointless “The Fast and The Furious” series about street racing, and then some other actioners. No doubt these roles were less demanding on her both physically and in terms of acting chops — and they certainly were far less rewarding to her and film audiences.
But in this film, she is convincing and brilliant.
The supporting cast, though less spectacular, is effective. Jaime Tirelli is decent as Hector, although the character is a bit underdeveloped. Same goes for Paul Calderon as Sandro Guzman, Diana’s dad, a man who finds the money to keep his son Tiny (Ray Santiago) boxing — even though Tiny is ambivalent about the whole idea — but thinks Diana is a troublemaker who needs to earn the allowance she asks for. Douglas isn’t bad as Adrian, though he suffers from sharing screen time with Rodriguez.
The boxing scenes are well-choreographed, something that even the more heralded films about the sport cannot boast.
I won’t give away the ending, which isn’t as predictable as that of many other boxing films. But I will say that after the love story of “Girlfight” seems to take precedence at some point, the conclusion somehow returns us to the main event — one tough girl defying the odds and taking on an uncertain future with the zeal of a true fighter.
Dave Kavanaugh is sports editor of the Optic.