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New to Digital - MUSCLE

muscle review
A middle-aged man's life is changed by a personal trainer, but for better or worse?

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gerard Johnson

Starring: Cavan Clerkin, Craig Fairbrass, Polly Maberly, Lorraine Burroughs

muscle film poster

Once the niche of those adverts in the back of Marvel comics, the world of bodybuilding has gone mainstream in recent decades. Just look at our current crop of male Hollywood stars, many of whom now resemble professional wrestlers rather than matinee idols. Being ridiculously handsome is no longer enough, now you have to be ludicrously jacked. While it's good that men are beginning to make some effort in getting fit, there's a dark side to all this, with many men using the cover of physical health to avoid mental health issues. While it's considered unmanly to talk about your problems, roaring like a tiger while you bench press the equivalent of a small family saloon is as masculine as it gets in this immature world.

As played by Cavan Clerkin, Muscle's put-upon protagonist, Simon, is a classic British middle-aged male. His hair-line is in retreat while his paunch is expanding. He's stuck in a tele-sales job he hates. His girlfriend, Sarah (Polly Maberly), despises him so much that she confesses to having to get drunk just to face him when he arrives home in the evening. The friction between Simon and Sarah appears to be rooted in some ambiguous shared tragedy (a miscarriage?), which, classic Anglo-Saxon bloke that he is, Simon can't bring himself to talk about.

muscle film review

Desperate to change his life in some way, Simon joins a gym. Not one of those mainstream, well lit gyms with bubbly personal trainers on hand to make you feel better about yourself. No, Simon opts for an old school, down and dirty gym, the type populated by ex-cons and ex-squaddies, the sort of men who have spent too much of their lives in male company. You can almost smell the whiff of testosterone and desperation.


Standing out like a bag of pork scratchings in a Tel Aviv boozer, Simon quickly draws the attention of man mountain Terry (Craig Fairbrass), a personal trainer who offers to take the soft lad on as his pet project. Hesitant at first, Simon is broken down by Terry's overbearing ways, and within weeks his stomach has hardened, his biceps are bulging, and his newfound confidence even sees him become the top seller at his job. Sarah, however, isn't impressed and ups and leaves, leaving the way clear for Terry to move into Simon's spare room, quickly followed by a second tenant, Terry's dodgy, flirtatious female friend Crystal (Lorraine Burroughs). It soon becomes apparent that Terry has sinister intentions towards Simon.

muscle film review

Muscle follows a template that goes back to the likes of Strangers on a Train, essentially a femme fatale thriller in which the femme is replaced by a homme. It's become impossible not to draw comparisons with Fight Club when it comes to these particular thrillers, and given it shares a similar macho milieu, Muscle might have been written off as a clone of David Fincher's over-rated film. There are certainly similarities, particularly with Simon's employment situation, but Johnson gives this format a very British makeover.


Set in Newcastle, Johnson's film won't be praised by the UK tourist board any time soon, as it paints a bleak, dystopic portrait of a modern urban Britain populated by miserable people stuck in the sort of jobs that really should be illegal, retreating to gyms and pubs to forget about their woes. There's an interesting commentary here about the sales sector, which is where we initially find Simon earning his crust. Halfway through, following a violent office rage fuelled by testosterone abuse, Simon finds himself working for Terry, delivering illegal "man juice" to the city's less discerning gyms. Simon's first job saw him essentially conning his customers into handing over money for something he fools them into believing is free, while in his second his customers know exactly what they're signing up for. The irony is that the former is perfectly legal, while the latter carries the risk of jail time.

muscle film review

This dichotomy is also found in the character of Terry, whose bravado tellingly drops whenever his past military life is mentioned. Terry clearly did some awful things, but if it's for Queen and country it's all okay, right? Too old for service now, Terry applies everything he learned in the army to get ahead in civilian life. Simon is just another target in the cross-hairs of his scope.

Given the casting of Fairbrass - who, it must be said, is excellent here - Muscle is in danger of being lumped in with the sort of laddish gangster movies the burly actor has become synonymous with. But while Johnson is a filmmaker whose films share themes with the sort of straight to VOD trash Fairbrass and Danny Dyer pop up in, he brings a lot more to the table than his contemporaries. Where his rivals make turn-your-brain-off movies to supplement six-packs (beers, not abs) and pizzas with the lads on a Friday night, Johnson's films are aimed at putting you off your food and booze. For all its genre tropes, Muscle is an earnest attempt to examine and question a very Northern European type of masculinity.

Muscle
 is on UK Digital now and on blu-ray/DVD from February 1st.