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Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise) family home is burned down by his landlord for failure to pay rent. In an effort to seek revenge, he meets the man’s daughter Shannon (Nicole Kidman). She has fled from her father, bitter by his methods and wants to go to the United States where there is a chance at claiming free land in the midwest. She convinces Joseph to travel as her servant. On arrival in Boston, their plans are shattered when she is robbed, and the two are forced into labor in order to survive. Pretending to be siblings so as to not raise a scandal, he takes up bare-knuckle bar fighting, which she despises. In time, their luck changes and they earn the chance for a stake in the largest land grab in US history.
Directed by Ron Howard, the heavily romanticized film sticks to a very simple formula, relying on its leads to carry the simple story from start to finish. That works mostly, though neither character has much depth beyond their identities. They both have great charm and naturally, as the two were a couple in real life as well, have strong chemistry, but the story lets them down for the most part with little challenge for either. Of course, the big moment is the recreation of the famous Land Rush, which saw more than a hundred-thousand people on horseback and wagon settle the Cherokee Outlet, in what would be come Oklahoma. A rousing, well-directed action piece, it over-shadows most of the film, but is great cinema spectacle.
Joseph has found the best source of income for him is bare-knuckle brawling at Boss Kelly’s (Colm Meaney) club, where he becomes a regular winner. One night, he arrives at the club and sees Shannon up on stage as a burlesque dancer, which, as he has fallen in love with her, has him upset. She too is frustrated by his need to fight, and as he rushes the stage to defend her honor (people think they are brother and sister) he is given a chance to make a small fortune by taking on a much larger opponent who is said to be unbeatable. Shannon encourages him to fight, even though she has told him she hates it, saying that the money would get them out of Boston and on their way to the west. When he realizes she means them and not him, he smiles, strips off his shirt and slips through the amassing throng of bet-takers looking to make money on a real fight. He’s been fighting for himself till now. That’s all about to change.
The moment Joseph sees in Shannon’s eyes that she loves him back, he is willing to do anything for her. It’s been clear they are attracted to each other, but she has been reluctant, especially as they are living together in a small one-room apartment under false pretenses. She must be careful. With the the huge money pot he could earn from the fight, she sees they could be free of their entrapment in Boston. The moment is beautifully framed and shot, with Shannon up on the stage looking down on Joseph, himself surrounded by onlookers hoping he’ll fight, giving us a look at the entire bar. There’s not tension as to whether he will fight or not, or even if he will win because of course he will, but that’s not what the moment is about. This is about the motivation, when there is unspoken confirmation that one is loved by the other, and how it creates a monumental shift in the relationship. Love is the thing. He fights not for him anymore, but for them and it makes all the difference.
Bob Dolman (story), Ron Howard (story)
Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Thomas Gibson