As I’ve commented on before, there’s a lot of bad independent cinema these days that just sort of floats by hazily, its attempts at courting more overt commerciality ironically rendering it indistinct. Then there’s something like Shadowboxer, the directorial debut of Lee Daniels — producer of the Academy Award-winning Monster’s Ball — and a movie that makes you appreciate independent films, if in no doubt wholly unintended ways. Yes, if you’re going to do bad, you might as well close your eyes and swing for the fences like Shadowboxer, in the hopes that someone mistakes all that effort and intensity for insightfulness.
An emotionally over-dialed drama, Shadowboxer centers on the warped, intertwined lives of a pair of live-in assassins — preternaturally quiet Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his mentor/lover, Rose (Helen Mirren), who years ago rescued him from an abusive household as a child. Theirs is a relationship that recalls a pet and pet owner as much as anything else — Rose bathes Mikey, and he sleeps curled up at her feet. To add, though, to the… intrigue? well, let’s say convolution, Rose has now been diagnosed with terminal cancer, leading to a bit of a shift in their traditional caregiver arrangement.
The pair’s latest assignment finds them carrying out a contract, sight unseen, for crime boss Clayton (Stephen Dorff), an out-there club owner whose villainous motivations are less recondite than purely baffling. After offing a lippy subordinate himself, Clayton includes his pregnant wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito) in a series of in-house hits just on the off chance that she may be cheating on him (“We’ll never know,” he says with a shrug and a smirk). Rose and Mikey coldly dispatch a group of Clayton’s henchmen, but Rose has a change of heart when she sees a panicked Vickie’s water break. So begins a harrowing life on the run for this ultimate odd quartet — Rose, Mikey, a bewigged Vickie and baby. A year passes, and while Rose looks to redeem their tragic past in her remaining time on Earth, a reticent Mikey dutifully if dispassionately protects their new adopted family.
Penned by William Lipz (perhaps a pseudonym?) and credited with 15 producers on the project, Shadowboxer keeps you guessing, all right, but never in a really good way. Though one hardly ever knows what is about to follow, the accrued litany of garish, puzzling and/or silly elements reads like a random grab-bag of stylized clichés and truncated impov exercises, from Rose and Mikey’s wheelchair-bound contact and bizarrely operatic and baroque score by Mario Grigorov to a zonked-out supporting turn by Macy Gray and not one, but two sex scenes between Gooding and Mirren — one preceded by a striptease set to rapper Nas’ “The Cross,” allowing this reviewer to unfortunately spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating just how deep-set Gooding’s ass crack is.
Independent of its execution the film scores a few, scant points for its off-kilter, multi-ethnic casting and blind eye toward conventionality. But eccentricity in place of substance and psychological perspicacity in the end doesn’t fly any more than rote formula. Directorially, Daniels substitutes slow-motion for meaning, and the performances are wildly uneven (Ferlito in particular is awful), sometimes seemingly cobbled together from tonally different films. Only Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as a shady doctor who aids Rose and Mikey but then must deal with Clayton as well, escapes with his dignity more or less intact.
Shadowboxer is ostensibly a picture about colliding damaged souls, the legacy of sadism and the toll and endless cycle of psychological abuse. But A History of Violence this ain’t. Lacking any natural flow or cohesion, it instead becomes an unintentional comedy of unfortunate choices, not the least of which is on the part of erstwhile Oscar winner Gooding, to whom Chill Factor 2 must now be looking pretty good. (Teton Films, R, 91 mins.)