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Newcomer Michelle Rodriguez packs punch

Get a ringside seat for 'Girlfight'

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In this story:

Bouts of anger

Knockout performance


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(CNN) -- Karyn Kusama's "Girlfight" shouldn't be called a boxing movie. Like most sports films, it centers on the will of an athlete -- in this instance, a fledgling female boxer played by newcomer Michelle Rodriguez -- to meet self-imposed physical and emotional demands. But Kusama is smart enough to let Rodriguez's brooding magnetism carry the story.

This isn't "Rocky" (1976), with blaring trumpets and heavenly choirs elevating a gritty pugilist above the masses. You can smell the sweat in "Girlfight"; the training scenes, though pivotal to the main character's self-awareness, are anything but uplifting.

Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman, a tough New Jersey teen who discovers a wellspring of poise when she starts working out in the ring. Rodriguez herself seems to mature as she forces her way through the arc of the story. This is an exceptional first-time performance, one that's engagingly raw while being tempered by a sense of purpose. It's a fortuitous piece of casting on Kusama's part.

Bouts of anger

The script isn't particularly inventive, though it gets the job done. Diana's defeated, semi-caring father (Paul Calderon) forces her younger brother (Ray Santiago) to toughen up by training at a local gym. But Diana is beyond the realm of parental guidance. Her mother committed suicide, and dad is incapable of understanding the residual anger that burns inside of her.

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If there's a weak link in the film, it's Calderon's character. He's too passive to generate the level of torment that's supposed to be pushing Diana into action. It's implied that his beatings forced his wife to take her own life, but you can't really imagine it. You sense that Diana could grab him by the collar and toss him down the stairs, even before she bulks up.

Unfortunately, Diana takes her home life out on her classmates, a fact that's made abundantly clear in the terrific opening scene. When a self-centered student overtly belittles her less-attractive friend in the girls' restroom, Diana tracks her down in the hallway and pounds her head against a metal locker.

Diana isn't a boxer at this point -- just a girl who's willing to kick butt when she thinks someone is asking for it. The trouble is, she always thinks they're asking for it.

One day, she even smacks a male boxer after he sucker punches her kid brother in the ring. That confrontation unexpectedly serves as Diana's entry into sanctioned combat. She soon starts to like what she sees at the gym. After convincing a naysaying trainer (Jaime Tirelli) that she's tough enough to give it a go, she starts to work out on a regular basis.

Knockout performance

Though it's sometimes referred to as the sweet science, you seldom see the details of fighting technique explicitly portrayed in movies. Here, you watch Diana learn how to bob and weave, gracefully move her feet and land various combinations of jabs. Rodriguez is an elegant, hard-hitting fighter, but the occasional wildly thrown hook shows that she's still a diamond in the rough.

Eventually, her personal life grows more refined in tandem with her ring work.

She cautiously begins a relationship with another boxer, played by Santiago Douglas. The romance almost works as a plot device because Diana refuses to grow starry-eyed over her new beau. She fumes when she sees him at a party with a more conventionally eye-catching girl, but that just spurs her on to more athletic achievement.

Rodriguez delivers the goods in every scene; it's just that the material doesn't always support her commitment. The underlying content is mostly generated by the actress' iron will, not the action or the dialogue.

The final act deals with a contrived boy-girl match that's a bit beneath the rest of the picture. Nevertheless, this is a very winning debut film that features a powerful central performance.

It may not be as earth-shaking as some people are making it out to be, but it's well worth your time. Take this opportunity to see some legitimate girl power before "Charlie's Angels" sets the gender back a few notches come November.

"Girlfight" contains profanity and mild sexual situations. The boxing is never all that violent. A junior high school age girl could do far worse than to see Rodriguez's truly modern heroine in action. Rated R. 113 minutes.



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