By Rob Blackwelder
"Fight Club" quite literally doesn't pull any punches.
An angry, violent, testosterone-saturated, darkly comic allegory on consumer culture and the reality of personal freedom, it's a film that dares to question American values in the most inventive ways since "Dr. Strangelove" -- although the comparison ends there.
Directed by David Fincher ("Seven," "The Game"), a filmmaker with no compunction about putting his audience on constant edge, it's an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's controversial book about irate nine-to-fivers releasing their frustration, rage and anxiety through a network of underground cults that espouse the most savage male instincts -- the desire to beat the crap out of someone.
Edward Norton -- the wildly talented, incredibly versatile Kevin Spacey of Generation X -- stars as the film's self-destructive and deliberately unnamed narrator. The ultimate American corporate stooge, he is a recall coordinator for a major car manufacturer. It's his job to preserve the bottom line by debunking his company's culpability when cars catch fire or crash due to design flaws.
On the fast path to a nervous breakdown, Norton has begun to loathe his acquiescent surrender to encroaching yuppie-dom ("I was a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct," he proclaims) and combats both acute insomnia and extreme ennui by habitually attending random support group meetings (melanoma one night, testicular cancer the next), just so he can unload his every pent-up emotion on the shoulder of someone who will listen.
But when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), his entire life is turned on its ear and he begins to discover new outlets for what has become all-purpose rage.
A charismatic, wannabe nihilist and borderline psychotic, Durden thrives on chaos and defiance of civilization. He's subversive in any way he can devise -- for instance, working as a projectionist at a movie theater, he splices single frames of pornography into kiddie movies (Fincher does something similar in the first reel, flashing nearly subliminal images of Pitt on the screen to illustrate how the character is haunting Norton's narrator).
Together they discover a new, excessively primal release for their mutual cultural fatigue -- frequent, zealous, vehemence-fueled fist-fighting.
After their fisticuffs gather a crowd on a few occasions, they found a club in the basement of a skid row bar and begin hosting weekly gatherings of men who, resentful of their complacent lives, participate in this impulsive form of venting -- brutally beating each other down in one-on-one, bare-knuckle brawls.
Fincher holds nothing back in these sweaty, feral, anonymous bouts. The weight of the world seems to bear down on the blood-stained cement floor of that basement. "Fight Club" is an in-your-face commentary on some of the most abstruse ills of our society, and although it stops short of condoning such consentual violence as a form of therapy, it unflinchingly acknowledges the instinctive appeal to the dormant caveman within every member of the male gender.
But under Durden's leadership, the ultimately accedent Norton is increasingly left out of the loop as Fight Club begins to transform into an underground anarchy movement that spreads nationwide and has feelers in every establishment from Wall Street to police precincts. Before long Fight Club has become Project Mayhem -- for all intents and purposes a terrorist organization bent on nothing less than tossing a monkey wrench in the spokes of Western civilization.
This change in the Fight Club credo leads an increasingly erratic Norton into a desperate attempt to stop his out-of-control companion, but everywhere he turns for help, he finds Fight Club/Project Mayhem members. Suddenly the scope of the bedlam Durden has planned becomes apparent and "Fight Club" blind-sides you with the direction it takes in the last act.
After demonstrating his fallibility with "The Game," an absurd thriller riddled with glaring loop holes, Fincher has bounced back to the kind of gut-twisting filmmaking that made "Seven" impossible to forget.
The story of "Fight Club" lends itself to inventiveness, and Fincher delivers with an amped-up look and pounding atmosphere, driven by a rave-style Dust Brothers soundtrack and brilliantly illustrative photography. When Norton fantasizes about being in a airliner crash, you see it in a fully-realized flash of chaos from the character's point of view. When he makes the comment about being a slave to Ikea, the camera sweeps his condo as catalog prices and descriptions of his furnishing appear floating in mid-air.
The director also scores near matchless performances from his stars. Norton's entire being seems consumed with the darkest innate feelings of personal expatriatism, as if he were trying frantically to split in two to escape himself.
Fincher extracts from Pitt a performance of pure, unleashed Id that has more in common with his mental ward patient from "12 Monkeys" than it does with his dullard Death in last year's "Meet Joe Black." Its the kind of potent acting he's always been capable of, but seems to deliver only when working with a strong director.
But the real acting shock here comes from Helena Bonham Carter, released from her customary corsets as a deeply troubled, chain-smoking, sexually neurotic, booze hound who comes between the two men.
"Fight Club" is not without problems -- not the least of which is that it somehow stalls out for a scene or two at the precise moment it should be burying the needle on its envelope-pushing tachometer. There's also premise-level suspension of disbelief required to accept some of the lengths to which the unified Fight Club members will comply with Tyler Durden's delusions of grandeur.
But it's extraordinarily subversive for a studio picture -- anti-establishment in both theory and practice -- and Fincher must have had to fight off all kinds of nervous studio suits to keep it this undiluted.
Run time: 139 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th October 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $100.9M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Regency Enterprises
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 80%
Fresh: 128 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 8.9 / 10
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Edward Norton as The Narrator, Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, Meat Loaf as Robert 'Bob' Paulson, Jared Leto as Angel Face, Zach Grenier as Richard Chesler, Holt McCallany as The Mechanic, Eion Bailey as Ricky, Richmond Arquette as Intern, David Andrews as Thomas, Christina Cabot as Group Leader, Tim De Zarn as Inspector Bird, Ezra Buzzington as Inspector Dent, Bob Stephenson as Airport Security Officer, David Lee Smith as Walter, Thom Gossom Jr. as Detective Stern, Carl Ciarfalio as Lou's Body Guard, Stuart Blumberg as Car Salesman, Mark Fite as Man #2 at Auto Shop, Matt Winston as Seminary Student, Lauren Sánchez as Channel 4 Reporter, David Jean Thomas as Policeman, Paul Carafotes as Salvator, Winking Bartender, Christopher John Fields as Proprietor of Dry Cleaners, Michael Shamus Wiles as Bartender in Halo, Van Quattro as Detective Andrew, Markus Redmond as Detective Kevin, Manasa Madapu as Manasa Madapu
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