Over the years, I’ve had quite the love/hate relationship with Digital Playground. Put simply, it often seems like they make and remake (and repeat) the exact. same. content – a phenomenon that only seems to have intensified in recent years. *BUT* when DP is on their game, they are so on; and one of the best films I’ve ever seen came directly from their hallowed, celluloid halls…
Digital Playground’s Fighters (2011) is like an onion, except that onions aren’t very sexy, so maybe it’s like a layer cake. Or an artichoke. Point being, there’s a lot going on in Fighters, you just have to be willing to get past the choke of too much frosting on top.
Fighters was DP’s Big Fall Release for 2011. It arrived on my doorstep glorious – three discs (including a blue-ray version of the film, which was totally lost on me) covered with all kinds of “Fight, girl!” affirmations. Here’s the box copy:
Two beautiful, passionate girls from opposite walks of life come together in a battle of lust, raw emotion, egos and unyielding wills to fight it out in a stealthy boxing match. Gorgeous yet tough Jesse Jane combats her troubled home life with her perverted, skirt chasing father, Tommy Gunn, and finds her intense desire to fight the help of her naughty sister Riley Steele, and compassionate coach Scott Nails. Sexy Kayden Kross punches out her deep seated feelings with a fiery need for boxing, supported by her sexually ravenous best friend Stoya and a horny young house guest. Fueled by their inner demons, Jesse and Kayden come face to face in the best performances of their careers, ready to box it out and ultimately test whose desires and passion will prevail. (sic)
So, terrible terrible awful embarrassing writing aside, I went into Fighters expecting an amalgamation of Girl Fight (2000) and what I think happens in Warrior (2011), maybe with a little memory/fantasy of Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) thrown in for good measure – definitely empty calories. For me though, in spite of the guilt, girls fighting always amounts to a flavorful treat, so I gave it a watch…
…and found that Fighters was way more satisfying than the silly box text let on! As a whole, Fighters is a tale of twos – two very different young women struggling with daddy issues, two very different but almost equally shitty fathers, two very different ancillary hot chics (frosting), and two other – also different – hot chics that drive a subplot that is both compelling and deeply problematic.
Let’s consider: poor little rich girl Kayden Kross is very unhappy. She drifts around her mansion, alone but for the maid, opening college-related mail, banging her boyfriend Manuel Ferrara, and hanging out with her BFF Stoya. The only thing that seems to make her happy – because let’s face it, she’s got a rough life – is the boxing training she does… with her private trainer in her private home gym.
Now, I don’t mean to sound unkind – Kayden’s character (creatively named “Kayden” in typical DP-fashion) is all but completely ignored and occasionally bought off by her father, and that has to be rough. Kayden (the performer) does a good job conveying some pretty deep pain onscreen.
Poor little poor girl Jesse Jane’s unhappiness manifests more as anger. Her mother has died by her own hand, her dad (Tommy Gunn) is a burnout asshole banging some vacant high-school slut (played so seamlessly it was apparently effortless by Bibi Jones), and she’s about to get kicked out of school for being a super trouble-maker. Her younger sister “Riley” (played by… wait for it… Riley Steele!) is kinda just there, perhaps for moral support… sort of an adorable sidekick-but-not-really.
When juxtaposed with Kayden’s “Kayden,” Jesse’s character is easier to get behind. Poverty, be it urban or suburban (both of which are alluded to in this film), and the loss of a parent are a lot to deal with. Put simply, in terms of structural disadvantage, Jesse’s life seems harder and her struggles greater. So when she and Kayden find themselves face-to-face in the ring, each ready for their first beat down ever with a previously unknown co-hot chic, I admit I was in Jesse’s corner.
On the basis of these key plot elements alone, Fighters was pretty good. Although some of the dialog was absolutely painful, director Robby D did an excellent job delivering two completely independent stories that connected perfectly in the end. But like I said earlier – layer cake, in a series of twos…
Kayden and Jesse both did excellent work here. I’m no boxer, but Kayden was convincing as a relatively icy and isolated fighter-in-training struggling with intense, deep-seated abandonment issues. And Jesse did just as well as the relatively raw and out-of-control fighter dealing with issues that were just as intense, but far more immediate. And the dads – we never even see Kayden’s dad, which was appropriately telling; and my, oh my Tommy Gunn were you great/gross! Both fathers, be they banging of-age high-schoolers or off in Europe somewhere, were perfect fuel for their respective daughter’s fire.
So the main story lines were delivered well, but I gotta tell you – it was the subplot involving Vicki Chase and Stoya that really stood out to me. As we know, Stoya plays Kayden’s BFF. Stoya’s character, “Stoya,” is equally wealthy and equally ignored/abandoned by her parents. But rather than punching it out like Kayden, Stoya acts it out by epitomizing the “bratty rich bitch” stereotype with effortless gusto: spending money, fucking and fucking around, and marginalizing others who are less fortunate than she is in really deplorable ways. This is where Vicki Chase’s character, “Vicki,” comes in.
Vicki plays Kayden’s maid’s niece, brought into the home to learn how to clean. Vicki is sweet and friendly when she first meets Kayden, who is sweet and friendly back. But Stoya sees Vicki in an entirely different light, addressing her as “Little Yummy” and asking after “…that sexy little ghetto slut” because “[she likes] Mexican.” As in the food.
Serious race and class tensions exist between these two characters throughout the film, with Stoya exploiting every opportunity to fetishize and demean Vicki. In particular, she corners Vicki into banging her “Meat Puppet” (Erik Everhard); and later, she manipulates Vicki into… err… lending her her man (Toni Ribas). Vicki, in a moment of truly beautiful acting, seems extremely pained and upset.
Stoya’s character in this film is across-the-board deplorable. With the exception of her relationship with Kayden, she is commodification and white privilege taken to the extreme – self-absorbed, manipulative, racist, classist, and even sexist… all while being breezy and careless and completely unaffected. She engages scripts ranging from “Don’t you want to keep hanging out with the cool rich kids?” to “Do this, or you’ll be out on your ass!” to manipulate Vicki.
These sorts of issues and themes are pretty icky, and both Vicki and Stoya did an impressive job of embodying these icks. And Fighters needed this tension, or it at least needed Vicki’s “ghetto” character, to survive – who else was going to let Kayden know about Open Fight Night Fridays, which is where she eventually boxes community-service/detention-serving Jesse? (they don’t advertise events like that in Ms. KK’s DP neighborhood)
Layers! And there were even more, layers like…
…there was some sex in this movie – eight whole scenes! They were all boy-girl scenes and all just fine. Riley’s scene with Ramon Nomar the least amount of sense plot-wise; and Jesse’s scene with Scott Nails was excellent, minus the god awful crying faces she was making during the lead in. And speaking of Scott Nails, he was incredibly appealing in this film, overshadowing the ordinarily extremely distracting Manual Ferrara by quite a bit.
To conclude, I’d read a couple of other reviews that loved Fighters but were disappointed by the ending…
* * * SPOILER * * *
…but I was not. Like I said, I was rooting for Jesse going into the end, but I really liked the fact that we never get to know who wins. Both ladies were facing issues far larger than themselves, and both walk away from the fight apparently satisfied at having dealt with their struggles in some way. The ending helped maintain the storylines’ independent, yet equal, weight.
I thought it was really well done.
Image used with permission.