Anthony Argo is a young Italian/Australian boxer being pushed to the limit by his Sicilian father-trainer, Joe, who wants Anthony to achieve the success in the ring that he was denied as a young man. When Anthony meets Kate, he begins to see his life - and the role violence - in a different light. Ultimately, broader motivations draw him back into the ring.
The modern face of Australian multiculturalism is enjoying an unprecedented cinematic profile, with two ethnically-themed dramas spotlighting migrant life. Thematically, David Field’s The Combination and Shawn Seet’s Two Fists One Heart are unsurprisingly familiar, yet the different approach taken by each director offers a fascinating study of contrasts.
The Combination is a film that speaks to the warriors of the urban youth landscape in their own language - literally as well as cinematically. Field’s passionate directorial debut tells it like it is: the arena of violence within which young Middle Eastern men exist in Western Sydney, the volatile territoriality that fuels the 'skips-vs-wogs’ turf wars; and the importance of family as a bedrock. The film also embraces the obvious cinematic clichés all too easily: the hero worship afforded Al Pacino’s thug-god persona, Tony Montana, in Scarface; the vision of anglo-blonde purity as a trophy for the repentant Lebanese man; the depiction of machismo as both a liability and virtue. The film is often compelling but never fully escapes its pandering to the wider audience’s perception of the culture it portrays. It may be exactly as it is, but the nightly news and better films have told the audience as much already.
Two Fists One Heart deals with similar plusses and minuses. The story, based on the tough life of writer and co-star Rai Fazio, tells of a gifted young boxer Anthony (Daniel Amalm) whose life is teetering on the brink of criminality and hedonism. He, too, through an act of bravado, has acquired a trophy-blonde (Jessica Marais), who falls in love with Anthony despite the wishes of her middle-class 'its-not-like-we’re-racist-darling-but...’ parents. Anthony’s father Joe (the wonderful Ennio Fantastichini), a proud boxer now training the neighbourhood’s toughest, is a man of integrity and ethnic tradition who demands dedication from his son. But, when the nightlife and promise of passion leads Anthony astray, Joe turns to Anthony’s nemesis, the thuggish ex-crim Nico (Fazio), to realise his dreams of greatness in the ring.
Director Shawn Seet is himself familiar with multicultural issues, having been born in Malaysia before immigrating to Australia. On the face of it, Seet had all of the usual ethnic/sporting/wrong-side-of-the-tracks-romance clichés in which to indulge. And, for much of the first half of the film, indulge he does. But Seet and screenwriter Fazio, both working the big screen canvas for the first time, refocus their story just when it needs it. The film reconnects with the heart of their lead characters, investing a lot of faith in their young cast to rise above the plot machinations. There is a phoenix-from-the-ashes training sequence and a rousing boxing finale, but it’s shot with a confidence that both ensures sporting authenticity (ex-boxer Fazio demanded the punches connect) and also stays connected to the story strands. In a very succinct and assured manner, Seet wraps up all the story elements, with an economy that suggests a natural story-telling talent has been discovered.
There is a roughness and swagger to The Combination that plays like a western – themes of young men pushed to the limits by their environment, asked to stand tall in the face of hardship and villainy. Two Fists One Heart, despite its contemporary setting, is also a rather traditional 'movie’ story, but one that utilises subtlety and nuance, providing a much more palatable but no less urgent and relevant drama. Where the former plays like a dire social wake-up call about the futility of cyclical race-related violence, the latter offers a tangible hope in the face of the hardship.