Rated R, 93 min. Directed by Lee Daniels. Starring Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr., Stephen Dorff, Vanessa Ferlito, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Macy Gray.
In the first 10 minutes of writer/director Lee Daniels’ assassin melodrama, a crime boss violates a man with a pool cue, a child fires his father’s gun, and a handful of bad-guy cronies get shot up in slow motion. It sounds like fodder for one of Japanese shock master Takashi Miike’s over-the-top yakuza films, but make no mistake: Daniels (who produced Monster’s Ball) and the cast are hell-bent on distinguishing Shadowboxer as a very serious, provocative piece of art. None of the characters dares smile or crack a joke, and each one carries grave emotional baggage. Professional killer Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.) struggles with his childhood, when he was taught to kill by an abusive father. Meanwhile, his partner and surrogate, mother Rose (Helen Mirren), looks for redemption as she slowly dies of cancer. She finds it during her last job with Mikey, when her soon-to-be-victim, Vickie, goes into labor with a pistol pointed at her head. Taking the absurd event as a sign from God, she spares the woman, hides her, and begins to help raise the child. But while Rose wants a new life, Mikey remains unflinchingly loyal to the professional-killing business, and Vickie’s powerful criminal husband, who called in the hit (Stephen Dorff), starts to suspect that perhaps she isn’t dead. As the film hurls toward the inevitable, violent showdown, numerous recognizable faces pop in to aid the body count, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a shady doctor, Mo’Nique as his crack-addled girlfriend, and Macy Gray as Vickie’s doomed confidante. All give solid performances, but Daniels negates each one with painfully direct, overwrought dialogue. The story meanders, too, only picking up at a few plot twists that would feel preposterous and unmotivated even in a Van Damme action flick. But what Daniels lacks in narrative ability, he attempts to make up for in shock value. Stylized violence and deviant erotica come in heavy doses, but it’s all soaked in pointed symbolism that makes Spielberg’s infamous orgasm/massacre juxtaposition in Munich seem as subtle as an Ozu film. If Daniels had stepped back and realized the absurdity of the images he expects viewers to take seriously, the film might have soared as a gleefully twisted exploitation melodrama. But there’s no glee here, just a handful of glum characters stuck in an unending cycle of sex, violence, and heavy-handed preaching.
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