No American director is better at putting his characters (and often his audience) through hell than David Fincher ("Seven"). The champ steps back into the ring with "Fight Club," (see Going for broke) but atypically runs out of steam before his orgy of smirking ultraviolence enters its final rounds.
Edward Norton's role as Fincher's latest whipping boy is so unabashed that his character isn't even given a name. He's a mousy, anonymous corporate drone whose consumer-driven lifestyle is the Band-Aid on his cancer of the soul.
Our hero finds an outlet for his repressed id in amateur anarchist Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Sweeping onto the scene like a goateed Pan, Durden offers a novel release from their mutual ennui: beating the stuffing out of each other in impromptu bare-knuckle brawls. The idea isn't "sport," nor to settle any disagreement, but to find the true meaning of being a man ... indeed, of being alive.
The unconventional therapy catches on, and the duo is soon sought out by fresh disciples who are eager to join in the pummeling quest for transcendence.
The first half of "Fight Club" is wicked, venomous satire. Fincher doesn't merely jab at such targets as male-pattern bonding, support groups and designer furniture: He batters them over and over until they cry "uncle." Like Durden, he's out to brutally decimate the culture of faked sensitivity.
Some glitzy visual tricks further the bad-boy agenda. Innocuous office hallways are turned into computer-generated playing fields, the camera zooming down them like theme-park motion simulators. Many films are mistakenly touted as "thrill rides"; this one actually is.
Unfortunately, the thrill is gone by the second half, in which the hell-raising focus is abandoned in favor of a sadly typical suspense plot. Fincher suddenly becomes obsessed with closure, but his attempts to tie the story's loose ends together feel forced and beside the point.
The result: What began as a kamikaze feat of film terrorism ends up resembling a particularly hackneyed Brian DePalma movie. "Fight Club" is better when it swings wildly, not caring what it hits in its thirst to draw blood.