August 4th, 2006
“Shadowboxer” is aspiring to be a sensual, violent look at life lived behind the gun. What it resembles more is a pay cable porn leftover, complete with a full frontal from Stephen Dorff, and Cuba Gooding Jr. diddling Helen Mirren in what looks like outtakes from “Legend.” “Shadowboxer” is a lot of things, but “good” just isn’t one of them.
When contract killer Rose (Helen Mirren) is diagnosed with cancer, she elects to continue with her work, aided by her stepson/lover Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.). When on a routine assignment, Rose balks at killing the pregnant wife (Vanessa Ferlito) of a gangster (Stephen Dorff), instead hiding her away as the three raise the child in seclusion. As the years pass, the frosty and distant Mikey becomes a father figure to the child, which endangers his life and profession when his past comes looking for revenge.
The way “Shadowboxer” moves, you can understand that it’s a film that wants to set itself apart from the routine hit man cinema agenda. Director Lee Daniels is hunting for anything that will stand out to the audience, so he goes to a very unexpected place: sex.
“Shadowboxer” is a mash-up of Luc Besson’s “The Professional” with one of those late night Cinemax films you watch when the kids are finally put to bed, with titles such as “Cancun Desire” or “Masseuse Nights.” The producer of “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman,” Daniels know his way around making the viewer uncomfortable, but there’s a fine line between genuine, pants-tickling eroticism and “I can’t believe I’m watching this surrounded by strangers” soft-core porn.
Now, it’s not like I roll up the welcome mat at nudity, but the sexual material in this picture is gracelessly staged, frightfully filmed, and directed with all the zeal of a Shannon Tweed/Andrew Stevens epic. It’s gets embarrassing in a hurry. A majority of the cast strolls around naked (the notable exception being Mirren), and there’s a strong subplot covering incest in the threadbare script by William Lipz, but Daniels can’t find a secure way to develop that lust beyond mere raincoat voyeurism. Already cursed with bare-bones production values, the sex only manages to confuse “Shadowboxer,” and lure it away from anything close to a coherent and unique plot.
The other speed in Daniels’s repertoire is violence, which “Shadowboxer” features plenty of. The characters are cold-blooded assassins, and they act accordingly. There are blunt moments in the film which demonstrate Daniels has some ability as a filmmaker, but those are undercut with liberal usage of ugly step-frame processing pushing the look of the picture further into pay cable land.
“Shadowboxer” is something of a mess, but Daniels seems committed to seeing it all the way to the end and there’s something commendable in that defiance. Trouble is, he’s surely the only one who wants to stay until the end.
My rating: D