Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/04/06 21:29:32

"When cheapjack tries to go high class."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Alright, I’m going to list a few names for you now: Cuba Gooding, Jr. Stephen Dorff. Mo’Nique. Helen Mirren. Guess which one does not belong in a lame-brained thriller about assassins and drug dealers that narrowly escaped the direct-to-video status it deserves thanks to a couple of festival appearances and a very limited theatrical run this summer? Here’s a hint: her name rhymes with Helen Mirren.

The film is “Shadowboxer,” and it’s a jumble if ever there was one. On one hand, it really wants to be a brooding, introspective character study, but on the other hand, it also wants to be a sleazy crime drama with hit men and crack whores. Ultimately, it fails to be either; the hackneyed script can’t quite get a grasp on character depth, yet it also can’t quite deliver the cheap thrills such a trashy tale might otherwise provide.

Making his directorial debut here is Lee Daniels, the producer of the overrated “Monster’s Ball,” another title that mistook grimy sex and whiny characters for hard-hitting, mature drama. “Shadowboxer” is more of the same - we get aggressive sexual activity as shorthand for character development. Only this time, we get the sort of dopey gangster backstory that would feel more at home in a late night cable actioner.

The screenplay (by first-timer William Lipz) starts off with plenty of potential. As the story opens, professional killers Rose (Mirren), who has cancer, and Mikey (Gooding), who cares for her, have infiltrated the mansion of a drug lord, executing everyone in their path. When they finally arrive at their main target, the lovely Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), they get a big surprise: she’s just gone into labor. Rose, realizing the miracle of it all, helps her deliver the baby, then convinces Mikey to help her hide Vickie from her husband (Dorff), who paid big to have her dead.

The childbirth scene works, as it appears to turn the film in a whole new direction, one we haven’t seen a hit man flick go before. Oh, but then Daniels and Lipz turn the whole thing back around, thinking all the while that they’re headed for bold new territory. Again, what follows has promise - Rose, Mikey, Vickie, and baby wind up in a house in the country, where they hide out for years, a strange new family growing from the ashes of a violent past. Yet tied to this are flat, trite plot points, most yawn-worthy being the frequent flashbacks to Mikey’s boyhood (where he dealt with abusive dad) and the asides to Dorff’s character, who is - how original - a gangster with unchecked rage who shoots people at random because he’s all psycho crazy and stuff. Dorff plays these scenes exactly as you’d think he would, while the Mikey flashbacks look like every other abusive-past flashback we’ve ever seen on film.

The filmmakers then hope to make things interesting by dialing up the sex. And, sure, Gooding showing us his bare ass throughout can be considered daring, and the sight of full frontal, condom-covered Dorff does indeed push the boundaries of the “R” rating in commendable (if icky) ways, but such moments do little to help the story or its characters, unless the point was to have us giggling at the idea of Mikey plowing through his demons by plowing Rose. (A similar tactic worked quite well in “Munich;” here, the sex-violence combo comes off as just plain silly.) Most problematic is how the movie deals with the Rose-Mikey story: it builds up plenty of curious psychological trauma, then quaintly forgets the whole thing by removing Rose from the story. Why bother following through on the complexities of a potentially Oedipal relationship when it’d be more fun to just have a scene of Vickie masturbating?

Efforts to flesh out the tale through a subplot involving Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a corrupt doctor and Mo’Nique as his druggie girlfriend - and yes, it really is as laughable as it sounds - fall all too short, while another storyline, this one featuring Macy Gray as Vickie’s streetwise friend, is a whole lot of build-up and zero payoff. These scenes aim to add a bit of grit to the proceedings, but they come off so clumsily that we just don’t care.

Then again, we don’t care much for the main characters, either. Daniels and Lipz drag them (and us) through a heap of nothing in order to finally arrive at the inevitable showdown between Dorff and the people he’s been hunting, a showdown which turns out to be another heap of nothing. The whole point of the film winds up being an ain’t-it-deep message on the cycle of violence (will the kid grow up to be just like Mikey?), which is presented so ungracefully that it earns more groans than the knowing nods it wants.

That’s how almost all of “Shadowboxer” plays out. It steamrolls ahead thinking it’s being profound and bold and so very, very art house-y, what with all the sex and slo-mo shots and sad, lonely people. And not once does the film stop to realize just how shallow it all is.

But hey, at least Helen Mirren’s in it, so that’s a plus.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.