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'Glass Chin' Packs Powerful Dramatic Punch

Had Rocky Balboa chosen to remain a thug thumb-breaker instead of stepping back into the ring, he may have made Glass Chin. If he were lucky.

Surprisingly deft with dialogue and agile with anti-heroes, Glass Chin may be the best boxing film since 2010’s The Fighter — and the only in, well, ever, to tackle the exhausted genre without showing a single on-screen punch.

You’d think that would make the drama from writer-director Noah Buschel a fight fixed for boredom. But with surprising restraint, Chin manages a tense story and a knockout ending, if the film can be a bit too precious.

Corey Stall (House of Cards, The Strain), plays Bud, a down-on-his luck boxer known for being more intellectual than instinctive — and keeping the wrong company. When his restaurant fails, he returns to his haunted past as hired muscle for local mobsters. When Bud finds himself framed for murder, he must decide whether to bow to pressure to fix Kid Sunshine’s first big fight.

Even the plot is another red flag to beware Chin; few boxing plots have been simpler — and hokier.

But Buschel makes two canny decisions to slip from being cornered. One was casting Stall as his lead. Balding, haggard and full of flaws, Stall has the look of a former fighter, from his firm-but-softening physique to his training sessions to the up and comer Sunshine (Malscolm Xavier, a promising kid with his aim on the belt). Chin‘s portrayal of Bud as a trainer is spot-on, as most shots show Bud nagging his protegee on balance and footwork. It’s not the stuff of action, but it’s exactly the subtlety that makes Chin the surprise of summer.

The real find of Glass Chin, however, is Billy Crudup, who plays local mobster JJ Cook. Crudup can normally be found in easygoing or ponderous roles, like his stoned rock star in Almost Famous and the godlike superhero in Watchmen.

Here, though, Crudup pulls off something of a screen miracle, playing the villain with a menacing intelligence we haven’t seen since Kevin Spacey played the head-chopper inSe7en. As Spacey did in that film and The Usual Suspects, Crudup exudes threat despite his smaller frame. With his bent posture and near-hiss voice, Crudup resembles a cobra that looks like it’s dancing but is really sizing up your neck.

Glass Chin is a bit too fond of itself. Characters are prone to lengthy monologues that are too eloquent for the boxing underworld and particularly its residents. And goon Roberto (Yui Vazquez) is mesmerizing to watch, but he came straight from a 70’s Scorcese film, clearly an influence on Buschel.

But when your training is Scorsese, you’ve got a shot in the cinematic ring. Which is the underlying message of any good boxing film: When you fight the good fight, you’ve got a puncher’s chance.