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"Fight Club" takes a swing at greatness, but ends up beaten by its own plot.

It Could Have Been a Contender

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For nearly three-fourths of its running time, "Fight Club" keeps you in its thrall. But just when "Fight Club" escalates to the point of no return, and you're sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to see what the future holds, the director and screenwriter take a dive.

Not unlike "A Clockwork Orange," Stanley Kubrick's masterwork about alienation and disassociation, "Fight Club" wants to define a different sort of societal malaise. Here, the insidious evil is the fin de siecle emptiness of contemporary consumerism. Where Kubrick used rampant sexuality and violence as the only means of self-expression in his frightening view of society's breakdown, "Fight Club" director David Fincher opts for violence alone.

At first, it's almost honorable, this bare-chested, bare-knuckled boxing. One man pitted against one man; with each standing in for the other's pain, frustration or anger du jour. Not surprisingly, the movie is brutal and many will decry it as gratuitous exploitation.

Even worse, I feel sure that the movie will spark real underground fight clubs because both the movie and Chuck Palahniuk's novel on which it is based spin on the axis of reality. Yes, mankind is trapped in a vapid race to acquire possessions and then protect them. But perhaps more to the point is the fact that much of society seems unable to distinguish the inherent difference between real life and reel life.

"Fight Club" opens with an extreme shot that slowly zooms out and into focus: What we have been seeing in the extreme is Edward Norton's sweating brow and face with the barrel of a gun in his mouth. Zoom out farther and we see that the gun is in the hand of Brad Pitt. In voice-over, Norton begins to relate what led the two of them to this crisis point.

In stunningly filmed flashbacks, Norton brings us into the hell of his sleep-deprived life. By day, he's a consultant for an automobile company who calculates which is more cost-effective, recalling defective parts or writing off wrongful-death lawsuit settlements. By night, he's a fraud, attending various 12-step and other self-help, support groups because he's found that when he cries, he can finally sleep. His nightly catharsis may be false, but the cleansing sleep isn't. In short, he's addicted.

Then two things happen almost simultaneously: He recognizes another "tourist" among the suffering (Helena Bonham Carter) who could expose him, and he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt). Pitt's Durden is a functioning psychotic who has no fear. Bosses, pain, women - nothing makes him worry about who or what he is. He is primal man trying to carve out a place in a world where men are no longer the hunter/gatherers. He is the antithesis of Norton's weak-willed, pencil-pushing, catalog-shopping male.

When a night of drinking and philosophizing leads to a fistfight outside the bar, the two experience such a rush of testosterone and adrenaline that they are soon doing it every Saturday night. Soon there are spectators, and those spectators want in. Because the glory is not in the winning or the losing, but in the surviving. Pitt's primal man takes charge and before Norton's character's eyes, their "simple" Fight Club is now something much more sinister and frightening. It's become "Project Mayhem."

But as soon as the shock of just what "Project Mayhem" is sinks in, director Fincher and scripter Jim Uhls lose their nerve. After painting themselves into a most interesting corner, the two cop out. The big "reveal," as it's known in screenwriting circles, nearly undoes all of the brutal but wondrous things that came before. Pitt is his best since, well, honestly I can't remember when. And Norton continues to show that he is an acting powerhouse.

Brutal, provocative and stylishly well-made, "Fight Club" is a movie one will either vehemently decry or passionately champion for its right of free speech. If not for that stupid plot twist, "Fight Club" could have been a genuine contender.

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