'Shadowboxer' Can't Kill Its Own Cliches

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; 12:00 AM

"Shadowboxer" postures as a high-tone crime drama with passing observations about life, death and, strangely, care. But not even the cool presence of Helen Mirren can hide its heavy reliance on cliche.

There is a sliver of originality in the movie's central conceit: the idea, that is, of the middle-aged Rose (Mirren) and her younger African American companion Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.) as a mom-and-stepson killing team. (Sort of stepson: Rose was going with Mikey's father when he died when the boy was 7.) At home, they soothe and sweet-talk each other. But on the job, they're ruthless contractors with no time for on-site chitchat.

Rose has just learned she's dying of cancer. She's been philosophical lately. When she finds herself face to face with a heavily pregnant woman -- another contract hit -- she can't squeeze the trigger. She even ends up taking in the woman and a family of two becomes four.

While Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito) raises her boy and Rose watches supportively, Mikey seethes, works out and kills more targets to pay for diapers. As for Vickie's psychotic gangster-husband Clayton (Stephen Dorff), who commissioned the murder, he assumes his wife is missing because Rose and Mikey did the job right. But some people have a habit of talking too much.

As a producer, Lee Daniels ushered through the original "Monster's Ball" and "The Woodsman." As an African American director, he joins an all-too-select group -- Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou"), Doug McHenry ("Jason's Lyric"), Vondie Curtis-Hall ("Gridlock'd") -- that has gone beyond hip-hop comedy or gangsta fare. So it's unfortunate that, for his first foray behind the camera, the effect is pseudo-stylish and hackneyed.

The opening scene shows a young Mikey cringing as his hoodlum father beats his real mother. Picking up his father's piece, Mikey aims it at the mirror, just as his father's reflection appears in it. When the little boy fires, it's just the start of more groan-inducing overfamiliarity. The movie's interplay of graphic violence (you'll never think of pool sticks casually again) and coolspeak, and its showy shoot-'em-up set pieces, owe everything to the films of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.

William Lipz's script echoes better movies about hired killers who get soft (such as John Woo's "The Killer") and, before that, all those reluctant gunslinger westerns featuring the likes of Gregory Peck and Gary Cooper. But changing the gender brings nothing new to this subgenre; it just adds a skirt and a British accent.

Mirren is as watchable as ever. But in the movie's most bizarre development, that tender business between Rose and Mikey heats up into something that's not exactly family viewing. And one scene -- in which Rose gyrates and thrashes on the bed to Mikey's impromptu striptease act -- is something we trust will never appear on any highlights reel of her distinguished career.

Gooding is authoritatively cool as Mikey. You can sense the demons at work behind that detached demeanor, and it's nice, for once, to see him not straining to be cheesily endearing or goofy. But it's unfortunate the actor chose this project to show his previously untapped abilities.

Macy Gray appears in the film as Neisha, Vickie's loose cannon of a best friend. It's a throwaway role -- the narrative would lose nothing if it were cut. But her freewheeling abandon and that distinctive voice -- which suggests a trumpet wah-wah or a kazoo throat implant -- make for the movie's only entertaining moments. (My favorite scene: Neisha, trying to find out what happened to Vickie, kicks the intercom speaker outside Clayton's gated home, her miniskirt, girdle and Supremes-style wig in full, flamboyant display.) If only "Shadowboxer" had gone for more impulsive elements like this, instead of an unwavering commitment to imitate better movies, "Shadowboxer" might have been one for the cult shelves at the video store. Right now, you'll be lucky if you find it in the giveaway bin.

Shadowboxer (93 minutes, at ) is rated R for excessive violence, sex, drug use, nudity and profanity.

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