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Unique Loves: Damage (2009)

I recently watched Spartan, The French Connection, The 25th Hour, and The Vanishing, so of course what I'd like to talk to you about today is a little-known WWE movie called Damage.  I suspect everyone has one or two movies that, despite popular and/or critical opinion, they love like Linus loved his Christmas tree, and this is mine.  I watched it for Walton Goggins--a good reason to watch anything--but I bought it because it's an offbeat little lower-rungs-of-society morality play that, for the most part, feels like a specific and organically told story in which Steve Austin happens to have a lot of well-choreographed fight scenes.

I could slot this in, if barely, under the classification of "crime film," given the tenuous legality of the underground fight circuit and the role of the local mob, but the illegality is never the point and getting caught is never a concern: the characters accept the world they're given and look for ways to live in it rather than fight it.  The dilemmas are all elsewhere.

The movie is about John Brickner (Steve Austin), convicted of manslaughter and newly out on parole.  He's looking for a way to come to terms with what he did, and the movie hooks his desire for peace and redemption in with the underground fighting circuit in a surprisingly plausible manner: he's paroled in part because of the support of his victim's widow, Veronica (Lynda Boyd), who straightforwardly uses that help--and his past letters of apology to her--as emotional leverage to convince him to come up with a large sum of money for her daughter's heart transplant.  It's melodrama, but it proceeds logically from characterization and consequence, and so does John's decision to get into fighting.  As an ex-con, he plausibly can't scrape up much money even working two legitimate--if cash-only--jobs, but he tries until one of them goes under.  It's only then that he reluctantly accepts the offer of management and arranged fights that Reno Paulsaint (Walton Goggins), the flashy bullshit artist semi-boyfriend of the warm-but-reserved Frankie (Laura Vandervoort), a server at the bar where he acts as a bouncer.  John works his way up to a culminating fight, but on the way encounters setbacks from both an increasingly despairing Veronica and Reno and Frankie's own tangled history of debt.  In the end, unsurprisingly, it all works out: John wins the big fight, the little girl gets her heart, and three battered people walk off into the sunset together.

With the possible exception of the last part, that all sounds reasonably conventional, and indeed the broad outline of it is: this is a solid, well-paced, straightforward genre story.  (And as far as I can judge them, the fight scenes are pretty good, with clear action direction and only one absolute groaner of a Hail Mary victory.)  But in between the expected beats, this is a compellingly weird movie.

The milieu of Damage is working-class, and the details of that are unusually good.  The two apartments we see are small and cramped; Reno and Frankie's house is more spacious but also presumably mortgaged to the hilt, given their debt to the mob.  Cars are mud-splattered.  Characters eat at cheap diners and for the most part celebrate victories with drinks at home.  The pawn shop owner quips that his shelves are lined with Reno's "busted dreams."  The long hours of working two full-time jobs are taking a toll on John.  Becoming a fighter ties him into a new world, but not a glamorous one: a world that exists in economic cracks, in a kind of blue-collar ruin--bouts are staged on docked cargo ships and in abandoned factories and swimming pools.

I said before that the characters work with the world they're given, morally, and another thing that makes this movie a little off-kilter is the way they do that.  John has a clear and immediate goal--money for the heart transplant--but he sometimes sacrifices progress in that direction because of a larger moral principle.  That makes him sound kind of insufferable, but he's really not: he's a stoic, empathetic man genuinely trying to do the right thing in a world full of people who are all damaged and all in some way in need of help.

At one point, a fight organizer known only as "the Deacon" tells him the parable of the unforgiving slave, which--in a slightly too cute cut--we don't actually hear.  In essence, if you're unfamiliar with it, the relevant pat is that a slave is forgiven an immense, impossible-to-repay debt by his master--when all he'd asked for was more time--and within minutes starts choking another slave to get him to repay a much smaller amount.  When the second slave refuses, the first has him thrown in prison.  This comes midway through the film and has an impact on how conscious John is of the choices he makes to judge or not judge other people, and he consistently chooses to extend even unearned compassion because of this principle.

He splits his winnings with a dazed and bloodied fighter who conked out halfway through his own bout.  He risks more winnings in a gamble to pay off Reno's debt to another manager.  In the biggest sacrifice, and the one that's riskiest as storytelling, he has a chance to get, for nothing, the money to stake him for the fight that would pay for the operation, and instead uses that monetary favor to get Reno's debt forgiven and thus save his life.  If I were to go out on a limb, I'd say there aren't many movies where "saving the life of your flashy, sleazy, only tenuously likable manager" rates higher than "secure money for a little girl's heart operation," but the movie risks the audience's potential ire over it even if it doesn't go all-in on the consequences of that choice.  And it gives John a chance to, however clumsily, articulate what he's struggling with: "Every time I get close, that heart seems to come at the cost of somebody else."  He forgives, even if that forgiveness could have terrible consequences for other people, even if it weighs on him--it's no coincidence that immediately after he sacrifices the money to bail out Reno, he moves out of Reno and Frankie's house.

Which leads me to the fact that this is a rare movie for putting three people at its center in an odd, ambiguous, never-entirely-resolved triangle.  In a more conventional movie, John would get the girl; here, Reno doesn't even clearly get the girl, even though they live together.  (Black Dahlia fans, think Kay Lake and Lee Blanchard.)

And while I'm calling her "the girl" to make my point, Frankie really isn't flattened like that.  She's a character in her own right, and she has her own prickliness: she helps fix up the fighters after their bouts, but when John suggests she try to be a paramedic or a nurse, she's in earnest when she says, "What, I'm going to look after sick people for a living?  Healthy people, they take enough."  Her physical relationship with Reno doesn't seem to extend beyond a kiss on the cheek--she's specific at one point that he's "never asked for anything in return," even though he incurred his debt trying to save her--and early on, the movie seems to tease the possibility of her and John getting together, but in the end, her position between them is still the same, and still ambiguous.  John tries to resolve it, telling Reno that Frankie loves him--which Reno himself is unsure of, saying that she only stays with him "out of some sick sense of obligation" and he should tell her to go--and Frankie that Reno loves her--to which she says nothing.  The big gesture at the end of the movie, the emotional capstone, isn't a kiss but John giving Reno the family heirloom cufflinks Reno had earlier had to pawn and the three of them exiting the hospital together, Reno excitedly spinning out possible futures.

The oddness of the way the emotions work themselves out--and the way some of them are allowed to stay unresolved--is the biggest part of what makes this distinctive to me.  There's nothing wrong with well-executed convention, but characters who never quite precisely fit their assigned roles have a kind of appealing naturalism to them.  These people could be types, but they feel fresh and real, which adds meaning and significance to their story.  Revelations of hidden depths come in measured doses, complicating their understanding of each other, and in the end the movie seems to agree with Veronica's final assessment: "We're not the bad things we do.  We're not the good things either.  We just are."  Frankie's last patch-up job on John perfects the buried suture she worked on earlier in the movie, the one that does the best job of hiding the damage, a nice thematic endpoint for my discussion of characterization.

I can't sell this as a hidden masterpiece.  Either Austin in particular is burdened with some atrocious dialogue or the other actors have more of a gift for making it sound good, but "what you know about me could fit in the crack of my ass" is a hard line to save.  People are always having top-secret conversations almost around the corner from other people even when that would seem like a self-evidently bad idea.  John wins his last fight mostly because of symbolism, which is a cool move if you have it in your arsenal.  Despite the generally good character shading, John's construction boss is cartoonish in his terribleness.  Most significantly, it takes a deus ex machina--albeit a well set-up one--to make it possible for John to save both Reno and Veronica's daughter.

But despite that, I really like this movie--obviously, given the length of this post--and would genuinely recommend it if the above sounds intriguing.  A lot of movies--and while I wouldn't swear to it, this is probably doubly true of tie-in movies--are content to only be what they have to be.  They tick their boxes, with competence or without, and move on.  This would have been an easy movie to make along those lines, but it rarely feels designed by committee or for lowest common denominator appeal or even wide popularity.  It's a straightforward story, genuinely told, that feels like the product of a distinctive vision (either writer Frank Hannah's, director Jeff King's, or both), and I take genuine pleasure in championing it.

Justified: "Fire in the Hole"

Songs about Murder: "Matty Groves"