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Busted Up

1986, Starring Irene Cara, Paul Coufos, Tony Rosato, Stan Shaw. Directed by Conrad E. Palmisano.

Although it packs about as much surprise as a Mike Tyson licence suspension, this moderately fun boxing epic became a breakthrough film for producer-directors Damian Lee and David Mitchell, infamous collaborators who became Canada's straight-to-video kings during the second tax shelter era of the mid-to-late 1980s. Busted Up is something of a testosterone-ridden answer to the Canadian aerobics epic Heavenly Bodies a by-the-numbers story of sports redemption as a troubled, but good-intentioned fighter KOs a shady real estate deal on Toronto's slimy back alley streets.

The film stars Paul Coufos as Earl Bird, a blue-collar " round ring" boxer whose bare-knuckle matches have not only left his face scarred and battered, but they've also pushed away his singer girlfriend, Simone (Irene Cara), leaving him alone to raise their 11-year-old daughter Sara (Nika Kaufhold). Despite his troubles, Earl still tirelessly helps out his inner-city neighbourhood, whether it's starting programs for kids at the boxing gym he owns with his buddy Angie (Stan Shaw), letting an elderly friend crash on his office couch or bailing out a smack addict friend to the tune of $6,000 (while giving him a stern anti-drug lecture, of course). But Earl finds himself in a different kind of dilemma when slick gangster Irving Drayton (Tony Rosato) shows up to muscle the residents and shopkeepers out of the area. Turns out that Irving's working for real estate developer Nick Sevins (Frank Pellegrino), who wants to take over the whole community, including the gym, to turn a quick profit. Earl manages to resist the pressure of Sevins' goons, until Irving proposes a winner-take-all boxing bout to determine ownership of the gym. When Earl agrees to fight anyone of Irving's choosing, he ends up weighing in against recent parolee Granite Foster (Mike D'Aguilar), who killed Earl's brother while he was in prison. To make matters worse, Simone comes back into Earl's life in an attempt to take Sara away just as some of Irving's boys bash up his ribs with a length of pipe. Though he stands broken, bruised and abused, the fate of the whole neighbourhood now rests solely on Earl's calloused fists.

Ultimately one of Lee and Mitchell's most entertaining productions, Busted Up is an okay timewaster that manages to deliver a Canadian twist on this brainless, entirely overdone genre. Despite some missteps in the handling of the film's painfully tacked on romance, Lee's script is more self-assured than usual, and the film is directed with a reasonably steady hand by veteran stunt co-ordinator Conrad Palmisano. Strangely enough, though, it's Earl's heartstring-tugging attempts to raise his daughter and his determined selflessness that really shine, with the far too infrequent boxing bouts coming off as lame and uninspired. Though Palmisano's presence behind the camera should have assured some pretty good action, the final match turns into a punch-trading slugfest, complete with steak-slapping sound effects. It ends, hilariously, as Granite breaks just about every rule and tosses Earl's aged mentor, Daddy Ray (John Dee), out of the ring like King Kong Bundy(!), drawing his reeling opponent's ire, and sending Earl on the comeback trail. Surely, if you've seen one film like Busted Up, you've seen them all, but Palmisano handles the dramatic meat of the story with some class, and the whole exercise is just a shade better than a seasoned Lee-Mitchell fan might expect.

Paul Coufos, an American actor and one-time soap opera star who also starred in Lee's City of Shadows and Food of the Gods II is actually pretty believable as the working class Earl. He doesn't exactly have the build to fully convince us that he is an embittered boxer, but he pulls off his best William Smith imitation and does an admirable job. Top-billed Irene Cara, on the other hand, turns in a pretty weak performance, constantly distracting from the thrust of the main story with an on-again, off-again affair subplot that she uses to manipulate Earl into a pre-fight wedding. It's easy to see how Cara got the job, as she had just married director Palmisano, but her character is thoroughly one-note and she looks dowdy in oversized sweats. Her presence in the film also shamelessly capitalizes on her recording career by taking every opportunity to get her into a club to croon cheesy pop songs. Still, the most interesting casting choice for the film is the inclusion of ex-SCTV and Saturday Night Live performer Tony Rosato, who plays his first entirely dramatic role. He seems to be visibly restraining himself as tough guy Irving Drayton, but it doesn't translate into anything interesting in trying to be cool, he just comes off as bland.

Many Canadian films were shot on the streets of Toronto in the 1980s, but Busted Up captures a side of Hogtown rarely seen in films that makes it truly unique--the unnamed setting is full of ramshackle apartment buildings, dingy clubs, alleyways clogged with alcoholics and drug addicts, and a stark, neon-filled skyline. More importantly, Busted Up keeps its tone and themes firmly planted up north, landing somewhere between its most obvious inspiration, Rocky, and Paul Lynch's Canadian pro-wrestling tragedy Blood & Guts. Far from the highly personalized success story of Stallone's Balboa, Busted Up instead offers a distinct tale of community redemption. Earl, like Dandy Dan in Blood & Guts, has completely screwed up his personal life, but by saving his gym--emphatically established by Lee's script as a symbol of the surrounding neighbourhood's spirit--he becomes a local legend. This is definitely not the American dream, but a close, northern approximation one that eschews both the ineffectual, loser heroes of 1970s Canadian cinema and their unbeatable American counterparts with a thematic compromise that would appeal to viewers on both sides of the border.

It all adds up to passable entertainment, missing only Lee's trademark craziness, a staple of his canon that has presented viewers with people growing into giants while fondling breasts (Food of the Gods II), professional wrestlers impaled by lamps (Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe) and Amish sex fantasies (Screwball Academy). There's no such fancy footwork in Busted Up--it just lands its punches and pulls back, a straight-as-an-arrow strategy that works narratively, but leaves the film virtually indistinguishable from any other straight-to-video boxing tale. Lee and Mitchell may have had a victory on their hands with this one, but on closer inspection, they only won the round, not the whole fight.

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