SHADOWBOXER is that most wonderful of films, the kind that works on every level, but can’t be easily pigeonholed. If the usual pitch session is one line to sum up a script, the pitch for this would have to run to several pages and even then wouldn’t capture what is best about it. Director Lee Daniels has put his own distinctive stamp on family values, the bottom line, and the rewards and obligations of loyalty. It may be skewed, but the only thing truly terrifying about it is how normally it plays out when the paradigm is shifted just a bit away from the norm. Toss in Christian iconography and a few passing but meaningful questions about theology, and you have a film that constantly surprises and never lets you down.
Take the protagonists. Rose (Helen Mirren at her complex best) is a hitwoman of a certain age with a dicey medical condition and a matter-of-fact attitude towards her work. Accountants get more worked up by tax season than Rose does by going out on a job. Mickey (Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the best performance of his career), a couple of decades younger than Rose is her, well, we’re not quite sure what he is at the beginning of the film, except that he lives with her, nurtures her, and goes out on jobs with her. A job with a twist, a new baby, and the makings of a new kind of group dynamic change everything for Rose and Mike.
The DVD commentary track by Daniels and Gooding is sparing, as it should be. So much of the film is mood accented with a wry style that transcends language. There are insights into what Daniels wanted to get from Gooding at various places in the story, and a count of his lines towards the end, 37, that comes as a shock after watching him speak volumes with only his face. There is an appreciation of Gooding’s posterior, which is featured prominently, a put-down by Daniels of his cameo, as well as a suitably piquant back story on the infamous scene where Stephen Dorff, wearing only a scowl and a condom, shoots some people who are annoying him. The making-of featurette has its moments, as it explores the pleasures and perils of making an independent film. That’s a topic with infinite variations and makes for a different sort of drama and comedy.
SHADOWBOXER is ideally suited for small-screen viewing. There is an intimacy that plays well there, plus a new appreciation for the strong supporting performances, particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo’Nique cast against type but all the better for it. It’s all part of why it’s easy to get caught up on the absolute conviction of the premise and, you’ll pardon the expression, execution of this offbeat neo-classic.