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“Lights Out” Review

Dunno if it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, that it took watching it a third time to get/realize/appreciate all that’s good about it.

And there is a lot.

But…

Boxing is my thing. My sport. My hobby. My workout. My passion. Take the biggest, weirdest, geekiest, creepiest living-in-his-parent’s-basement “Star Wars”/”Star Trek”/”LOTR“/comic book loser and substitute any of that with boxing and POOF, here I am.

So when it comes to said sport being depicted on the big screen, I’m gonna come at it hard (true story: years ago, one of the hottest girls I’ve ever seen went and saw Will Smith’s “Ali with me in Brainerd. I never saw her again after that because I ruined the the movie – not that great to begin with, mind you – by relentlessly going off about how that never happened, that’s not how that went, that was only a rumour, he never did/said that, etc).

So anyway (by the way, sorry Nikki!) FX’s “Lights Out focuses on Patrick “Lights Out” Leary, a white, Irish-Catholic, former heavyweight champion (there hasn’t been one of those in two centuries, just sayin’) who, after losing his title in a disputed decision he in his heart believes he won (as all boxers do) retires from the ring upon the urging of his wife and three daughters.

Flash forward five years later: Leary still has his mansion, perfect wife and daughters, somewhat of a name, his own gym and, he believes, his financial security.

But this is a boxing drama. So now of course, Leary’s brother/ former cornerman/current business partner has mishandled his millions. He is facing bills from all sides. He is accepting humiliating gigs such as being a celebrity bingo caller. He feels the searing scorn his fellow man now holds for him, seeing him as a washed up palooka.

What? What’s that you say? At least he won’t be like “Rocky” and end up mobbed-up, working as a collector for a loan shark!

Bet me.

Of course if I lose you’ll have to send over your over the hill pug to get it from me.

Let’s see, what’s been left off the old cliche list:? Oh yes, he’s a devout, cross-wearing Catholic – on screen boxers always are (and 9 times out of 10 if they’re not Irish, they’re Italian) – and of course he goes to the hospital, and of course the doc gives it to him straight: pugilistic dementia.

Cause if he ain’t punch-drunk, fuggedaboutit!

Now let’s make him an overwhelmed, loving dad to three daughters (one a rebelling teen) and good, sweet husband to a wife who has his number (you know, some stand up comedian should use that plot in developing his own sitcom!!!).

The one boxing scene that opens the show is rife with slow motion, dramatic, bone crunching blows, spraying sweat, screaming, blood-thirsty fans, and ultimately Leary sitting alone, bloodied and beaten on the table in his dressing room.

Now I understand that it’s tv and tv and the movies need to make it overly dramatic to appease the casual audience member. That’s because the writers know what we die-hard boxing fanatics know: fights are very, very rarely that violent or climactic.

Oh, real fights can have their shocks, believe me. But it’s as a rule we only get a Hagler-Hearns or Ward-Gatti every 25 years or so. Real fights can entail a lot of circling, moving, jabbing, holding and missing. Sometimes you get a dramatic, ending KO, sometimes not (speaking of Micky Ward, Mark Wahlberg and the makers of “The Fighter” got that aspect of the sport just right in that magnificent film).

So in the end, there probably wasn’t room to stuff any more cliches in “Lights”.

So why am I ultimately recommending it?

It’s like a good, sound boxer: it takes it’s time setting you up.

Holt MCcallany plays Leary with a good blend of dignity and world weariness. Handsome – he looks more 50 than 40 (he’s really 46) – but that works for a guy who spent 20 years getting punched. As a boxer I’m not sure just how believable he’ll be but he did work with legendary trainer Teddy Atlas (IRONY ALERT – McCallany actually portrayed Atlas in a mid-90s film HBO did on Mike Tyson).

The writers opted not to have Leary totally down on his luck broke (where Stallone went wrong in “Rocky V“). Nor did they have him enjoying a full life of wealth, fame and security as that is reserved for only a few names: DeLahoya, Ali, Foreman and Ray Leonard are about the only ones I can name off.

I thought it was a bit over the top that he’d still have his marriage and family in tact, that he’d still have his McMansion and classic car and kids in expensive, private schools. They could have given him a more modest life (Stallone would end up nailing that in “Rocky Balboa“). But okay. Anyone living that life is gonna have financial stress.

The celebrity bingo calling scene was also a perfect blend of embarrassment and cold, hard financial reality.

Truth be told, no handsome, Irish (see white), semi-coherent and remotely charismatic, American, ex-heavyweight champion would be short on work.

But when Leary complains to his manager/brother, essentially telling him no more bingo gigs, the reply is spot on: Lights, you were champion for what, like 9 months? That was five years ago. People forget.

Leary goes on to do interviews and mention possibly landing a “commentator gig”.

Another aspect that shows the writers did their homework: Leary struggles mightily with the somewhat rather justified notion that he should have won that last fight. And as fighters tend to do, he blames others for the loss (I cringe whenever I hear a just-defeated fighter begin a post fight interview with “I don’t wanna make any excuses, but…).

In this case, Leary blames his trainer/father, portrayed by the excellent Stacy Keach.

And again, here’s where the writers get it right: boxer/son, trainer/father relationships are notorious in boxing for ultimately not working. The lines get too blurred.

In Leary’s last fight, he has his opponent all but out on his feet as the round ends. Instinctively, Leary wants the knockout. But in his corner before the final round, his father urges him to just stay away and coast to the final bell, that he’d already secured a points win.

Needless to say, the judges don’t end up seeing it that way and Leary is left embittered.

Then there is the requisite so-desperate-for-ching-we-turn-to-the-mob, bit. But the show manages to make that even somewhat interesting.

Leary goes to collect $500,000 from a suburban dentist and sports memorabilia collector (“the guy likes sports, he’ll respond to you” his brother explains).  The guy isn’t so indebted to a Tony Soprano type as more of maybe a Donald Trump: half a mil’, high stakes, but let’s cut to the chase and avoid the lawsuits.

 The scene ends with the dentist playing tough guy, ordering Leary out of his house and Leary seemingly shrugging and saying okay, never mind.

This is where the show starts to set you up.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Another less well handled scene has Leary drinking in a bar as his latest interview is being shown on the bar tv. “Enough of this a**hole! Turn it!” yells out a drunk yuppie patron. Leary smirks, gets up to leave all peaceful-like. Yuppie makes another crack. Leary comes back in. Yups says something along the lines of oh, it’s you. Bum. Calls him – literally – a “half fag”.

The scene ends with Leary asking him “How much money ya got?”.

A few scenes later we find that Leary’s adorable, youngest daughter had seen the tv interview which coincidentally showed clips of him fighting. Apparently little Katie had no idea what dad used to do for a living and she’s – according to Mrs. Leary – traumatized. So dad picks up Katie from school and tells her that they need to talk and that all “serious talk requires ice cream”.

Don’t roll the eyes quite yet: again, remember, you’re being set up.

That’s what good fighters do.

So honey you saw me fighting?

Yes, daddy. And you could have really hurt that man.

But baby I had to or he would’ve hurt me.

Cut to a flashback of what Leary ended up doing to the bat-wielding, wannabe tough guy/suburban dentist who refused to pay his half-million bucks (credit to the sound crew, there. That was a wonderfully sickening CRACK!).

Cut back to the cutesy little talk with Katie over ice cream.

We then of course see what happened at the bar: the drunk, verbally abusive yuppie accepting a wager to fight Leary out back. Where of course he gets beyond pummeled.

Again, that was less convincing: no boxer, much less a former champion, should be dumb enough to throw hands on a civilian. One pro fight, and your hands are deadly weapons.

Still, the set up was great.

It ends with his aghast wife watching tv and seeing his last opponent, “Death Row” Reynolds, announce that the rematch would take place in six months.

Are they going to stretch his training over the last 12 episodes and culminate the finale in the fight? If so, what then if there’s a season 2?

Maybe I’ve been away from regular, basic cable for too long, but I was a bit shocked at not only the swearing but also the rather intense sex scene in the beginning between Leary and his wife played by Catherine McCormack (of course he’s butt-naked and she’s under the covers, wearing a t-shirt - boo!).

I’m learning now it debuted to crap ratings. I hope it lasts at least til the end of the first season.

I’m hooked.

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