Plot: Ernie (Jeff Bridges) is a young, rookie boxer who wants to make a better life for himself and knows it will take hard work to keep pace, so he trains hard and tries to live clean. Meanwhile, over the hill Tully (Stacy Keach) knows he is on the decline and barely even makes an effort. He isn’t in good shape and chooses alcohol over the gym, hoping what raw talent he has left will be enough. The two wind up under the supervision of manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), who promises them a chance to earn if they stay in shape, but he plans to take the lion’s share of any purses. As the boxers try to keep ahead of their opponents, they also battle problems in their personal lives that prove to be serious distractions. Ernie is being pressured to marry his pregnant lover, while Tully is hooking up with a hot mess (Susan Tyrell) whose toxic lifestyle has started to seep into his own emotional health. Does either man have what it takes to make a run in the ring, or have both missed their chances at greatness?
Entertainment Value: I tend to watch most movies that involve boxing, as I love combat sports and Hollywood’s love affair with the sweet science has led to a number of strong, well crafted motion pictures. Fat City is one of the better boxing movies, with a nice blend of in ring action and character focus, not to mention a terrific cast that shows up to put in work. The narrative follows two leads, but never feels compromised, as both threads are given sufficient attention and when the paths cross, it is well executed and elevates the movie. I found Tully’s story to be more engaging, but both have merit and wherever the focus is, Fat City delivers. I also love the gritty, downbeat approach that almost looks and feels like a documentary at times, as it is gives the film such an authentic texture. This is especially true when Keach’s Tully is the focus, as his scenes are so raw and in the moment, particularly any of the ones he shares with Susan Tyrell, who is fantastic here. The pace is on point and never drags, while the stories keep your interest until the bitter end. I think Fat City is a terrific movie and not just for boxing fans, but anyone who appreciates good stories, great performances, and John Huston’s excellent direction.
The cast in this one is superb, which is even more crucial here than in most movies, given the air of authentic the film chases. Susan Tyrell would be nominated for an Oscar for her turn here and with good reason, as she is so believable as the down and out woman on the fringes. She does dial up the melodrama, but it makes sense to do so, given that her character is always wrapped up in some kind of drama, drunk, or just unstable in general. Her scenes with Keach are beyond masterful, she commits to the role and really makes the most of her screen time. She is well used here, but she is so good, I wish she had even more of a presence. Stacy Keach delivers my favorite turn of the cast however, with an authentic and memorable effort as a washed up, trouble magnet of a man. I like that he just embodies missed potential, a guy who could have made something of his life, but made one bad decision after another. The cast also includes Jeff Bridges, Candy Clark, and Nicholas Colasanto.