Let's examine the resume of debuting director Lee Daniels (who should
not be confused with the gifted cinematographer Lee Daniel). He has produced
MONSTER'S BALL, the controversial drama that inexplicably won Hallie Berry
an Academy Award. Daniels has also tried his hand at acting, offering a
pallid impersonation of a successful designer in
AGNES AND HER BROTHERS.
(I might hazard a guess that Daniels modeled the character a little bit on
Sean Combs or whatever hip-hop moniker he's going by this week. Combs
had a small role in
MONSTER'S BALL and has dabbled in fashion design and
certainly travels with an entourage -- the major difference being that Daniels'
character was openly gay.) Truthfully, in my book, neither of these films rank
as great cinema. So my expectations were rather low going into Daniels'
directorial debut,
SHADOWBOXER, a film that has the conjones to team
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren in a quasi-incestuous relationship as well
as presenting the mismatched Jack Spratt-like duo of Joseph Gordon-Levitt         
and Mo'Nique playing a doctor with mob ties and his drug-addled nurse.

The on screen results are indeed a mixed bag. Mirren and Gooding
are cast as assassins for hire. Their partnership spills over into their
personal life as well. We soon learn that Mirren's character, Rose, is dying
of cancer. She pops pills and swigs whiskey and talks tough. She's also
savvy enough to know that Gooding's Mikey will need someone to look after
him once she cannot. While carrying out a hit on the pregnant wife (Vanessa
Ferlito) of a sadistic mobster (Stephen Dorff), Rose decides to help the
woman deliver her baby (her water broke just as Rose was taking aim) and then
shelter mother and child. The foursome form a surrogate family with only
the doctor (Gordon-Levitt) and his nurse (Mo'Nique) in on the scam.

The film continues to spiral off into the absurd. Mikey and Rose
engage in a final round of lovemaking, during which he dispatches her,
thus leaving open the door for Ferlito's character to get under his skin.
No secret can be kept, of course, and eventually the nurse betrays them
to the mobster, leading to a final showdown that has echoes of an
incident from Mikey's life. The film ends on a note of the possibility of
a sequel, but one can only hope that cooler heads will prevail.

Mirren does her usually fine job, although it is a stretch accepting
her as a hitwoman. Gooding looks embarrassed throughout many of his
scenes. Ferlito is passable as the tough-talking trophy wife. Dorff is
amusing in his scenes, but I don't think that was the intention.
Macy Gray has a few scenes as a mush-mouthed pal of Ferlito's, but
she was used to much better effect in the TV movie
LACKAWANNA BLUES.
Mo'Nique, in her dramatic debut, shows that she has the chops, but the
role she is saddled with is rather cliched. (Interestingly, it was her
casting that caused the screenwriter to take his name off the project
and substitute the pseudonym William Lipz. Too bad; it would be nice
to know who really was to blame for the lame script.)

Daniels' direction is messy, operatic at one moment, shaky the next.
He pays homage to many other, more gifted filmmakers. I'm really surprised
at how many critics have failed to take note of his nod to Derek Jarman
in one of the more controversial scenes: the purported lover of Dorff's
wife is strapped to a pool table with an eight-ball stuffed in his mouth.
Dorff takes a pool cue, breaks it and then kills the man in the same manner
that
EDWARD II was murdered (although in his case it was with an heated
poker.)

SHADOWBOXER may one day be accepted into the pantheon of
camp classics (although I'm pretty certain that isn't what Daniels intended)
but it will still rank below fare like
SHOWGIRLS.

            Rating:             D
            MPAA Rating:     R for strong graphic violence and sexuality,
                                        nudity, language and some drug use
            Running time:   93 mins.


                          Viewed at the Dolby Screening Room
Shadowboxer
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.