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DVD Review: ‘The Duel’

★★★☆☆

At first glance, Diego Hallivis’ The Duel (2011) appears to be just another run of the mill, wrong side of the tracks, teen-movie; not-so-bad bad-boy moves to new school, gets involved in a sporting contest with dangerous consequences and to get the girl kind of drivel perfectly tailored to the talents (if that’s the appropriate term) of  someone like Channing Tatum.

Fortunately for first time director Diego Hallivis, whose only industry credentials include little more than working as a runner on Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) and the little known TV show Burn Notice, a paycheck for a Mr. Tatum would probably cost several times that of his entire project, which is subsequently all the better for it, even if it means never really finding the audience it sets its sights on.

The Duel begins with our nice-bad boy Vance fleeing Wisconsin with his mother and winding up in one of the poorest and roughest neighborhoods in New York City. Vance, already sporting a black eye is obviously no stranger to hard times and initial makes strong conscious efforts to avoid the many opportunities for trouble inside his new and highly intimidating high school. An exceptionally good basket ball player, Vance soon finds himself caught up in dueling, a two on two court contest where either side can only call one foul per game before the fist are allowed to fly. Partnering up with his street-smart high school colleague Jules, the two soon find themselves playing for big money.

This all no doubt sounds rather predicable, which it is – little guess work would be required work from anyone who’s ever seen an MTV movie to see what lies around the corner for Vance: entanglement with one of the school’s most sort after girls, and a standard rivalry with its most street hardened thug. However, even if it follows the formula of one, this is not a MTV movie. The locations, actors and situations often resonate with a far more realistic, gritty and unpolished tone that permeates throughout.

At its best, The Duel’s style vividly recalls the understated and effectively simple works of Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quite City), which makes its otherwise unrewarding story, highly watchable. Indeed at one point Jules angrily proclaims, ‘This is real life’, and unlike MTV, it looks and feels lite too. Sadly, The Duel isn’t an out and out piece of independent American cinema, focusing on the real issues at the heart of it narrative. The numerous basket ball battles become overtiring, and as the only scenes (other than the incredibly out of place entrance of Vances’ love interest) to be backed by any kind of soundtrack, are at odds with the rest of the film’s effortlessly enthralling offerings of realism.

Certainly not for everyone, and highly challenging for its target audience accustomed to fast cuts, less authentic characters, with never a moment to truly contemplate the weight of what’s taking place, The Duel may be unbalance and awkward now and then, but its a commendable effort from debut writer Alberto Veloso and director Diego Hallivis respectively, that sets itself off with just the right level of ambition.

Matt Migliorini