American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Within the first five minutes, we know precisely how "Strength and Honor" is going to end. The rest is in the details, which are sometimes pretty good. The movie is about a boxer named Sean Kelleher who retires forever from the ring after killing his brother-in-law in a sparring match and only returns to win the money for a $250,000 heart operation for his young son. Wait, we're not finished yet. How could he win so much money for his first bout? Because he is fighting bare-knuckled for the title of King of the Travelers (also known as gypsies).
His arch foe in the championship bout is the vicious, mean, hard man named Smasher O'Driscoll, played by the British soccer star Vinnie Jones, but what do you think the odds are that he will lose his fight and his son will die? I should explain that this all takes place in County Cork, and stars Michael Madsen, who is a good deal gentler and more loving than you may remember him from "Kill Bill, Volume 1".
The movie is much about the travelers on a hilltop outside town. Sean is not a traveler, but after his wife dies and he is forced to sell their house to pay medical bills, he buys a caravan and moves in next door to the earth mother Mammy (Gail Fitzpatrick), whose son Chaser (Michael Rawley) lives nearby and begins to think of Sean as a father figure. Sean's financial crisis in the movie, by the way, should be reported to Michael Moore; Irish medical care seems mighty expensive.
This is melodrama mixed with formula and a great deal of tear-jerking, but Madsen plays the character straight down the center and has considerable authority; he doesn't ask for sympathy, doesn't accept favors lightly, says nothing when the travelers accept his $10,000 deposit on the prizefight, pocket the money, and tell him he's not qualified because he's not of the blood. He needs the $250,000 too much to complain. This and other matters are settled among the gypsies around a small bonfire, which provides warm, flickering light for many a conversation. Eventually he's allowed to fight, and in the final bout faces the fearsome, animalistic Smasher, who knocks out people just for knocking at his door.