There is something about boxing that lends itself to the cinema. From Raging Bull to Cinderella Man to The Fighter, the sport has served as the foundation for a surprisingly wide variety of stories. Noah Buschel’s fourth feature Glass Chin starts with a familiar character archetype – a down on his luck former prizefighter – and then goes in a direction that stretches the limits of the “genre.” Corey Stoll stars in the lead role alongside Billy Crudup, Marin Ireland, Yul Vazquez, and Kelly Lynch.
Glass Chin follows the story of Bud “the Saint” Gordon as his life goes from disappointing to disastrous. Bud used to be somebody special. He boxed in Madison Square Garden, and, if it hadn’t been for one solid punch, he would have won that fight. Aficionados still remember his name and a few even recognize his face. In addition to his past in the ring, Bud is a failed restaurateur, but still sees his monetary woes as a mere blip on his path to extravagance. Glass Chin frames Bud as something of a cautionary tale for when someone’s ambition supersedes his caution. Bud is smart, but not quite smart enough to navigate the muck into which he has waded. His long-suffering girlfriend Ellen (Ireland) sees no problem with settling for comfort and mundanity, but Bud’s brief flirtations with wealth and fame makes their desires incompatible.
Bud’s deliverance, or so he thinks, comes in the form of JJ Cook (Crudup), a man in a silver suit with plenty of money and a very reasonable proposition. JJ is the devil whispering in Bud’s ear, and it would even be hard to blame Bud for listening if basic story structure hadn’t made the disaster he was stepping into rather obvious. Crudup is effortlessly suave and commanding in the role. There is never a scene in which JJ has anything other than absolute control over those around him, manipulating both what they do and what they perceive.
This film differentiates itself from other boxing fare by focusing on conversation and contemplation rather than action and violence. The boxing scenes we see are solely training exercises, and bouts are heard over the radio rather than shown onscreen. The violence is set off-screen away from the eyes of the protagonist, and that is what makes it so dangerous. Bud can take care of himself in a fight, but he can’t save himself from being framed for a violent crime if he doesn’t have any idea it happened until after he has already been snared. Glass Chin is a boxing film that doesn’t show the big fight, and it is a crime movie that doesn’t betray the deed. It focuses on Bud’s emotional turmoil, and the rest is just superfluous.
Perhaps as a response to the increasingly popular shaky-cam style of other boxing films, Glass Chin favors long takes and a static camera, moving almost exclusively during slow close-ups. The lack of overt violence certainly contributes to this, but even the more complexly staged scenes employ the style, in a manner almost befitting the stage. This stylistic decision by Buschel causes the story to alternately seem voyeuristic, documentarian, and claustrophobic. Initially, the stillness of the camera was somewhat off-putting, but as I became accustomed to the style, it began to add an interesting element to a story that could have been boring and predictable. Namely, the camerawork reflects the static nature of Buds life while also reflecting and contributing to the growing tension he feels over the course of the film.
To Bud, JJ is the savior of his better tomorrow; to JJ’s henchman Roberto (Vazquez), he is the chess-master who selected him as his favored pawn. Despite all of the sleaze, JJ positively oozes charisma. Crudup gives off the impression that JJ is merely playing games with those around him, maneuvering them into situations in which he has absolute control over their fates. JJ serves as an antagonist that Bud has no true hope of overcoming, because he rigged the game long before Bud even started playing. The manipulative mobster is far from a unique character, but Crudup injects JJ with so much class that he seems to be a singular creation.
While Crudup seems to be permanently at ease while portraying JJ, Stoll’s take on Bud is of a man incapable of relaxation. Stoll infuses his performance with hints of simmering tensions. Every conversation is a small battle to be won, every restaurant visited is chance to prove his worldliness, and every mistake made is yet another new beginning. Bud is the kind of man who would be insufferable to be around in real life, but in Glass Chin, he proves to be a compelling protagonist. Bud’s fractured professional life and disintegrating personal life are counterbalanced by the one place in which he can relax, the one place he indisputably belongs: the ring.
This is a major reason why the story is ultimately so tragic for Bud. Although he knew JJ was involved in organized crime, his requests of Bud (like providing some additional muscle on collection runs) seemed so reasonable and what Bud is promised in return (another chance to open his restaurant in Manhattan as a partner with JJ) is mundane enough to be plausible. Bud soon proves to be a poor fit for work as an enforcer, but the scenes in which he helps to train a new hotshot boxer show him to be a superb teacher. Bud’s primary failing isn’t his surliness or his temper, it’s his inability to recognize that he already has a comfortable niche.
For Bud, the gym almost a space of meditation, and in fact monastic symbolism is liberally employed by Glass Chin. JJ goes so far as to articulate a vision of boxers in the gym as monks in a state of meditation, while Ellen seeks to audit classes taught by a former monk. Bud, meanwhile, tends to roll his eyes at such conversations, but himself espouses the importance of remaining calm and valuing the head over the heart. These contemplations, while heavy-handed, add something of a philosophical bent to what might have been a typical crime flick.
If Glass Chin has a major weakness, it is the dialogue, which is often anything but subtle; however, the performances, particularly the ones given by Stoll and Crudup, allow for the film to overcome such shortcomings. A sequence late in the film involves a long single take in which JJ delivers a lengthy speech to Bud about the various ways he has him outmaneuvered and outclassed. The scene, done in one take, shows Crudup at cold, implacable best, having him show a mix of amusement and disdain while a jittery Stoll must make it seem like Bud’s life hasn’t just fallen apart.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Glass Chin draws influence from both film noir and past boxing movies, but manages to rise above potential predictability to deliver a rather enjoyable experience. With a runtime of a slightly less than ninety minutes, Glass Chin might be a touch too slight for the story it is trying to tell, but the strong acting, occasionally nuanced character work, interesting direction, and grounded story-line make for a good watch.