Few light spots stand out in `Shadowboxer'

Review C

July 21, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

HELEN MIRREN PLAYS ROSE, AN AILING HIT — Even fans of Quentin Tarantino's gonzo gangsterism may find Shadowboxer to be a neo-noir novelty act worthy of rotten green tomatoes. Lee Daniels is a highly regarded indie producer with credits such as Monster's Ball and The Woodsman behind him. This movie about the humanity of paid assassins has enough gloss, pace and picturesque Philadelphia locations to suggest that he might have a career as a director in front of him. But he won't have much of a future if he remains a sucker for screenplays that twirl human kinks, traumas and foibles as if they were dishes to be spun on sticks at a carnival sideshow.

Helen Mirren plays Rose, an ailing hit- woman, with her usual craft, conviction and daring - and without a lick of her usual sense. Mirren acts illness well but still looks svelte in an Emma Peel kind of way, for a woman riddled with cancer. It's ironic that the great Mirren, who turned a gritty, no-nonsense British inspector into a crime-fiction icon in TV's Prime Suspect, would give herself over to a script that glamorizes executioners-for-hire. As Mikey, Rose's stepson, lover and partner in the family business, Cuba Gooding Jr. gives an admirably reined-in performance. After years of trying to turn a comic straight man's skills into a clown's by exaggerating his toothy smiles and doubling even his double-takes, Gooding gets his groove back. But it's all for a lost cause.

True to neo-noir form, Rose and Mikey secure one last giant score: knocking off the luscious if low-class Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), the wife of a mob boss (Stephen Dorff) so jealous and feral he'll torture or kill anyone who even thinks he's a cuckold. Rose's retirement seems secure. But when Rose sees that Vickie is pregnant, she hesitates. And when she sees Vickie's water break, she enters rescue-and-delivery mode, commanding Mikey's help then calling in her morphine connection, a seedy medic (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with his assistant (Mo'Nique), to ensure the mother's health.

Shadowboxer ( Teton Films) Starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. Directed by Lee Daniels. Rated R. Time 101 minutes.

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