Shadowboxer Shadowboxer
Starring: Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director: Lee Daniels

2.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

“Shadowboxer” finds Cuba Gooding, Jr. still wallowing in a post-Oscar slump. It’s a better picture than “Boat Trip,” an embarrassing “Love Boat” clone, or “Snow Dogs” a true hound of a flick in which his co-stars were huskies. Still, Gooding’s agent must be using a Ouija Board to make his career decisions – one with some seriously bad mojo.

There’s a creepy undertone in this flick that will make you go “Yuk.” Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren play mismatched hired mob assassins who have the hots for one another. Mirren’s character, Rose, was Gooding’s father’s main squeeze, sort of making Mirren Gooding’s step mother, which paints their nuzzling and tender glances with a heavy Oedipal brush. Gooding’s character, Mikey, is an assassin savant – he obeys Mirren’s wishes without question and is so emotionally bankrupt he barely breaks a sweat whenever he takes time out from killing underworld undesirables to shadowbox. (Hey, they had to fit the title in somewhere.)

Mirren and Gooding get their marching orders from Andrew (Tom Pasch), a wheelchair-bound go-between for Clayton (Brad Dorff), the local psychotic gangster. (Is there any other kind?) When Clayton suspects his girlfriend Vicki (Vanessa Ferlato) of infidelity, Mirren and Gooding are called in to obliterate Ferlato and four of his own mooks that know too much. The four punks go the way of Star Trek security guards (on screen long enough to get shot), but when Mirren draws a bead on pregnant Ferlato, whose water promptly breaks, her maternal instincts kick in and she can’t complete the hit. Ferlato goes into labor on the spot and suddenly the botched hit gets very complicated indeed. You see, Mirren is slowly dying from cancer and has convinced herself that meeting and saving Ferlato is part of her destiny.

**WARNING** SPOILERS after the jump

Against Gooding’s wishes, Mirren spirits Ferlato and her newborn away. Thinking Feralto has been perforated, Dorff has Gooding mop up a glaring lose end by having a hit put out on Vicki’s best friend Lisa. Lisa is played by eccentric warbler Macy Gray, who has yet to dial in on this planet. Gooding picks up Gray in a bar where there’s only one other patron – a worn out transvestite having a bad hair day. Who could afford to keep a place like that open? (Suspend your beliefs movie moment #1.) Gray’s character is supposed to be slightly sloshed, but she overdoes it, slurring her lines like a stroke victim on valium. When she tries to seduce Gooding, she dances with the rhythm of an anchor. Gooding poisons her and Gray’s jerking, hacking death scene assures she’ll be nominated for a Razzie Award.

The four fugitives set up house in the country with the former long-haired brunette Ferlato wearing an obvious blonde wig that makes her look like she stepped out of an old “Avengers” episode. Isn’t the idea to look as inconspicuous as possible when you’re on the lam? And why not just dye Vicki’s hair blonde? Even the real estate transvestite (yes, another one), who shows them the house and looks like Divine’s homely sister comments on Ferlato’s phony appearance. (Suspend your beliefs movie moment #2.)

Mirren’s condition worsens, but rather than get her the type of first-class medical treatment he can obviously afford, Gooding takes her out into the garden, makes gut-churning love to her, then shoots her in the head like a tired warhorse. I’m warning you – put the popcorn bowl over your head. Do not watch this scene. I worked in a morgue and saw fewer things as repugnant as these two making the beast with two backs. It is, however, a pivot scene. In the midst of their lovemaking Gooding flashes back to the moment when Mirren shot his father before his father could beat him to death, a portent of things to come. (Suspend all your beliefs – big time—movie moment #3.)

Years pass and Gooding’s character slowly warms up to Vicki and her son Anthony, who readily calls him daddy. Ferlato’s muskrat wig also disappears without any explanation. (It was probably due back at the zoo for a feeding.) Gooding continues to take Dorff’s contracts, rubbing out a trio of homies in a steam bath and capping an unsuspecting John in a motel. That’s right, I said John. Although the killing is filmed from the John’s perspective, it won’t take you long to figure out who the “woman” in the scene is. Yes, it’s Gooding, five o’clock shadow and all, dressed up in pumps and rouge. You finally get to see Gooding after the killing when he goes to brood alone on a bench. I can’t imagine any freak in this dimension or any other being attracted to she-Cuba long enough to get killed. Gooding looks like a cross between Jamie Foxx’s gender bender Loquisha from “In Living Color,” and Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine.” (Suspend all your beliefs – and try to stop laughing—movie moment #4.)

The trio’s odd but idyllic lifestyle is threatened when another peripheral character, crack puffing Precious (Monique) is wronged by her doctor boyfriend, “Third Rock From the Sun”’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As a reward for telling Dorff his mistress and son are alive, Dorff puts a bullet dead center in Monique’s head, and, as the scene fades, prepares to do away with the Doc as well. Dorff corrals Gooding’s makeshift family in the basement intending to permanently remove them from his life. After cutting off Gooding’s finger he makes the classic villain mistake – turning his back on the hero to threaten the heroine. Marshaling his shadowboxing skills and previously unseen Kung Fu expertise, Gooding punches, kicks and makes Dorff and his men sing soprano. Kudos to Gooding for doing his own stunts, but his thrashing about make him look like he’s with the road company of “Riverdance” rather than someone desperate to save his family. After dispatching the last hooligan, Gooding is felled by a recovered Dorff, who prepares to chop off more than just his finger. Surprise - Dorff is blown off his feet by his own son, Anthony, and the film has gone full circle. (Gooding had a hand in his father’s death and Anthony has a hand in father’s demise.) “You’re proud of him, aren’t you?” Gooding asks the wounded Dorff before delivering the coup de grace. That line and Gooding’s film-ending conversation with his son, provide “Shadowboxer” with some of its few memorable lines. “You’re my son,” Gooding says as the trio pulls away from their blood-soaked million- dollar home. “We’ll have to be careful because someday there may be more men like that.” Forever damaged (like Gooding), Anthony replies: “Then we’ll kill them.”

There’s enough skin and bad intent in “Shadowboxer” to warrant its R rating. Unfortunately, most of the nudity seems to surround Gooding’s butt. Sorry guys, you’ll get a glimpse of Ferlato as she seduces Gooding, a topless soon-to-be mentioned extra, and Mirren, who is starting to look way too much like John Hurt. Thankfully, she keeps most of her duds on. It might take weeks and some extensive therapy to get Gooding and Mirren’s tangle in the garden out of your head. Like Oedipus, you’ll want to scratch your eyes out. You’ll see Gooding’s butt in the shower as Ferlato stares at him through the steamy haze, trying to quell her attraction to him; Gooding’s butt raised high in the air when he’s giving Mirren a last romp in the garden before he puts her out of her misery; Gooding’s butt when he digs her gave and buries her in that same garden. (Isn’t there some sort of union rule saying you can’t bury someone while your buck naked?) There’s so much of this man’s posterior on the screen the film should have been titled “Shadowbutt.” Not to be outdone, Dorff’s moment occurs when he is doing an imitation of a pneumatic drill on an unhappy female extra and the landlord comes looking for her money. Exasperated, he stops, giving the audience a full Monty view as he pulls away. It’s nice to know Dorff’s character practices safe sex, but his reaction to the coitis interruptus is even more gasp worthy. He shoots the landlord and two of his bickering henchmen, wounding his trustworthy second-in-command while bellowing: “Didn’t I tell you not to talk while I’m !! %#!!” It’s an old plot device designed to show how stone-hearted the villain is -- and it works.

The performances range from fun to filthy. Dorff is appropriately menacing as Clayton, one of the few characters with any depth, even if he’s as cuddly as Joe Stalin in the midst of a cabinet purge. Helen Mirren’s grace and elegance quotient takes a hit whenever she gets warm for Gooding’s form, but she’s still a great actress, so you do feel sorry for her character whenever she goes into a coughing fit. She’s also smart enough to exit the picture early, avoiding the pat ending. If a quick exit from “Shadowboxer” is a good idea, then Macy Gray is a genius, but my guess is the producers decided to kill her character of Lisa off after getting a glimpse of her epileptic acting. Veteran TV actress Vanessa Ferlato (“24,” “CSI”, “Law and Order”) rides the emotional roller coaster well, going from kept woman to frightened victim to strong-willed, single mother in making Vicki believable. As the eternally cool Dr. Don, Joseph Gordon Levitt takes a slight role and revels in it, providing the little wit that peaks through the script’s dark recesses.

“Shadowboxer” includes commentary from Cuba Gooding and director Lee Daniels a
“Making of…” documentary. At least you get an explanation for the Zebra that walks around Dorff’s compound for no apparent reason – Daniels insisted, despite the cost. No explanation is given for his transvestite fixation, and you probably don’t want one anyway. You’ll also get snippets of interviews that hint at the cast’s camaraderie. There’s enough chemistry between Ferlato and Dorff to suggest maybe he and Gooding should have switched roles. (Ryan Phillipe was originally cast as Mikey, but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. Imagine how different “Shadowboxer” could have been.) Not surprisingly, Gooding whose character is isolated emotionally, comes off as being cut off from his fellow thespians as well.

Sometimes an independent film remains one because of its unique slant on life. Other times, as in the case of “Shadowbox,” it’s because studios won’t back a plot that breaks several Commandments and laws made to protect small children and farm animals. If you’re into incest movies and Cuba Gooding’s butt, this movie will fill that weird little niche in your soul. It’s worth a look for the performances of Dorff, Ferlato and Levitt, which manage to rise above the script’s primordial ooze. Just close your eyes during the garden scene.

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