With his first film since 2009’s crazy-good Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper drags us deep into yinz country for a brother’s-keeper ballad so American it might as well be knotted in a stars-and-bars bandanna. Shot on location in Braddock, Pennsylvania, whose real-life iconoclast mayor has earned national headlines, Out of the Furnace is objectively a series of blue-collar criminal cliches, but the cast is a little too sharp to let that structure sabotage the entire operation.
A good-natured machinist (not that one) with a loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), dying father (Bingo O’Malley) and hothead brother (Casey Affleck), Russell Baze (Christian Bale) seems to want to do the right thing, even if he has no clue what that right thing might be. Younger bro Rodney, angry, scarred and directionless after four tours overseas, agrees to take on a fixed brawl at the behest of local hood Petty (Willem Dafoe). Of course, the formidable scrapper doesn’t hit the dirt when he’s supposed to, indebting himself to the wrong folks — including a psycho Ramapo Mountains crimelord (Woody Harrelson) who forces the docile Russell to get involved for Rodney’s sake and safety.
Though they’re very different movies, Cooper’s second feature has a few things in common with the underrated Killing Them Softly, which came out around this time last year. Both aggressively portray the shriveling margins and stomp-or-be-stomped mentality that defines doing business in this country, whether that business is legal or not. And interestingly, both are timed at the outset of Barack Obama’s first term, perhaps as an unsubtle suggestion that hope’s never helped with the bills.
If this all this sounds too cynical, consider the implications of Cooper’s early plot-spurring device, that dive not taken. Sacrificing the long-term well-being of yourself and others for fleeting individual glory — seriously, is there any move more American? It got me thinking about just how many movies feature a variation on this. Turns out there are quite a few. Here’s a partial sample.
Pulp Fiction (1994): Washed-up boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is paid by mobster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to hit the canvas in the fifth round. He ends up killing his competition, which of course leads to the best dialogue-free pawn shop weapon perusal scene in cinematic history.
The Set-Up (1949): This well-regarded noir has Robert Ryan as a has-been pugilist who’s supposed to take a dive against a younger, better opponent. Even though this clip cuts out before the conclusion, you can probably guess what happens.
Kickboxer (1989): In this classic, a definite lock for inclusion on the Jean-Claude Van Damme Mt. Rushmore, gangsters kidnap JCVD’s little bro to force him to deep-six a Muay Thai bout against super-scary Tong Po. JCVD does not comply, obviously. Can someone please make me a GIF of the amazing face kicks at the 2:08 mark?
Snatch (2000): All gypsy bare-knuckle brawler Mickey (Brad Pitt) has to do to satisfy the demands of ruthless cockney gangster Brick Top (Alan Ford) is go down in the fourth. Instead he does this, much to the zoom-displayed chagrin of put-upon hoods Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy (Stephen Graham).
Kid Galahad (1962): The least persistent gangsters in the history of organized crime try to convince Elvis, as a boxer who’d much rather prefer to be a mechanic, to throw a title fight. He ignores their lame urges and proceeds to engage in hilariously unrealistic fisticuffs with his opponent (skip to 3:03).
Diggstown (1992): Why doesn’t Diggstown get more love?! It’s one of the weirdest, coolest boxing-themed movies out there. No need to get into all the different bribes-for-dives in play here — just know that it stars Louis Gossett Jr. as a retired fighter who’s forced by Nebraska’s Bruce Dern to knock out 10 different opponents in a 24-hour period. It also features Philly’s own Randall “Tex” Cobb. Mainly posting this vid so you can watch the towel-throwing part.
Sgt. Bilko (1996): This one’s just funny — the only movie, to my knowledge, that features two fighters trying to take a dive simultaneously. RIP Phil Hartman.
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