Wretched excess in a movie needn’t require a huge budget; as this debut feature from Lee Daniels demonstrates, all that’s required is a director with a large ego and a willingness to throw everything but the kitchen sink onto the screen. In terms of script, “Shadowboxer” is nothing more than a simple-minded (if implausible) crime story–the sort of stuff familiar to anyone who’s read noirish pulp thrillers from the forties or fifties. But Daniels has gussied it up with so many cinematic tricks and flourishes that it’s most notable not for its story (or even its oddly impressive cast), but rather for its garish look and its pointlessly fractured narrative approach. It’s a complete folly, but since it will quickly disappear under the radar it won’t receive the ridicule an expensive studio bomb would get–and which it so richly deserves.
William Lipz’s script centers on a couple of hit-persons. One is Rose (Helen Mirren), a gaunt woman terminally ill with cancer. Her partner, both in the business and in bed, is Mikey (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a a cool customer whom–we will learn in one of many flashbacks–Rose saved from an abusive father and made her ward. Rose and Mikey receive a commission from mean-tempered crime boss Clayton (Stephen Dorff). He’s killed an underling whom he suspected of having sex with his wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), and did so in a very ostentatious way, using a pool cue on the trussed-up fellow while other members of his gang looked on. Now Clayton regrets things–not the killing, but the public nature of it–and so he hires the duo to dispose of all those who saw the act, as well as his presumably unfaithful spouse, even though she’s pregnant with his child.
Rose and Mikey knock off almost all their targets with frightening efficiency, but she can’t bring herself to kill Vickie. Instead she delivers the woman’s baby and enlists the initially reluctant Mikey to help her hustle mother and child to a secret safe house and promise to protect them after she dies. (She also involves a sleazy doctor, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and his physically substantial nurse and lover, played by Mo’Nique, in insuring the child’s health.) After her demise Mikey keeps his pledge, and he, Vickie and the boy become a not-so-typical suburban family. Of course, you just know that Clayton will inevitably discover their whereabouts and come calling. The ending tries to say something about genes and the influence of fathers, biological and adoptive, but the message is hardly a crystal clear one.
This is a lurid plot to begin with, but it’s made all the more so by Daniels’ wildly flamboyant assault on it. The style of “Shadowboxer” is all brash colors, woozy compositions and chronologically-challenged construction. Its visual extravagance reaches a dubious apogee in the sequence in which Mirren dies after she and Mikey have sex in what appears to be the Garden of Eden, and he follows up by burying her corpse in a grave that seems to reach halfway to China. But that’s just the most extreme example of the sort of overkill in which the director and cinematographer M. David Mullen regularly indulge themselves. It’s as though they’re constantly trying either to blind you or make you dizzy.
None of which helps the actors. Mirren, usually so reliable, looks understandably stranded, while Dorff chews the scenery even more than he did in “Blade” and Ferlito shows little restraint as well. Gordon-Levitt brings a nice touch of nervous humor to the lean doctor, but it’s difficult to discern why he’s in this picture, and Mo’Nique is even more out of place. It’s a measure of the movie’s oddity that Gooding gives the most restrained and elegant performance, eschewing the grimaces and mugging we’ve come to expect from him.
Mikey, by the way, is the source of the title–he works out all the time, including going one-on-one with his own shadow. It’s an apt metaphor for the movie, which ultimately bobs and weaves a lot but ends up all empty air.