Autopsy report. January 1998. Subject: The Boxer. Prognosis: D.O.A. Coroner's
comments listed below. . .
The complete collapse of all vital signs in The Boxer has, unfortunately, come as a total
surprise to well-wishers everywhere. In the weeks leading to its release, the film registered
high on all of our charts. The core talent of writer-director Jim Sheridan, co-scripter Terry
George, and star Daniel Day-Lewis had together given birth to In the Name of the Father,
one of 1993's finest specimens and the recipient of seven Academy Award nominations.
The Boxer itself entered the week of its national release promisingly with three Golden
Globe nominations in the major categories of Best Picture, Actor, and Director.
Our most attentive specialists did note, however, that the studio releasing The Boxer
distributed gift-packages and other amenities to the entire voting membership of the
Hollywood Foreign Press, so the nominations may have been less indicative of good health than of savvy and
Still, the film's constitution seemed strong and its pedigree impeccable.
The basic skeletal structure, a plot in which a released IRA prisoner renounces the
terrorist lifestyle to revive his past glories in the boxing ring, appeared strong enough to
support the most strenuous demands of audiences looking for anything from a political
manifesto to an intense, rah-rah, Rocky-style sports drama.
To those ends, The Boxer filled out its frame with considerable acting muscle. In addition
to Day-Lewis, who sculpted himself a buff new bod for the role, the film pumped itself up
with Emily Watson, an Academy Award nominee the previous year for her galvanizing
work in Breaking the Waves, and Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael
Mann's Manhunter. Watson plays Maggie, the childhood sweetheart Day-Lewis seeks to
reclaim against the wishes of her father, Cox, the local IRA heavy.
These encouraging signs notwithstanding, though, The Boxer collapsed and expired
immediately upon arrival at theatres around the country. My autopsy has yielded plenty of
symptoms beneath the deceptively healthy exterior that go far toward explaining the film's
untimely and unforeseen demise. The Boxer seems to have simultaneously contracted a
lethal combination of maladies previously observed in other films of recent years:
1. Casino Syndrome. Not since Martin Scorsese cooked that three-hour turkey for
Thanksgiving 1995 have I seen such an exaggerated case of Same Old, Same Old,
particularly from a cast and crew capable of so much better. Telltale signs include a
pronounced shrinking of the brain and, even more alarmingly, a sticky void where the
heart should be.
The Irish Troubles are as intensely dramatic a scenario as one can imagine, so the failure
of The Boxer can hardly be attributed to an exhausted subject matter. As with Casino, the
central problem is that the film imports the setting of its predecessors but none of their
dramatic immediacy. Neither the characters nor the situations of The Boxer are anywhere
near as compelling as the world in which they are placed. The full-blooded humanity that
Day-Lewis and the extraordinary Pete Postlethwaite brought to In the Name of the Father
is decidedly absent from the newer film.
To its credit, The Boxer does portray the smoky evisceration of Belfastthe sudden bomb
blasts, the nightly sniper-firemore vividly than have Sheridan's previous efforts. The gravity of this
environment, though, unfortunately highlights the insipidity and artificiality of Sheridan and George's
screenplay. We see a city besieged by civil warfare, and yet we are forced to focus our attentions on two
thin characters whose "problems" seem measly in comparison.
When the violence does affect principal characters, the circumstances are so contrived
that the bomb blasts lack any parallel emotional impact. A telling contrast exists in Michael
Winterbottom's recent Welcome to Sarajevo. Sure, the orphans-in-peril motif in that film
risks sentimentality, but the war-violence plays out as an organic part of the characters'
daily existence, not as backdrop for poker-faced speechifying.
Which brings us to our second debilitating disease . . .
2. As Good As It Gets-itis. Like James L. Brooks's hit dramedy of
dysfunction, The Boxer
is fortunate to have a cast so capable and magnetic that they almostalmostdisguise the
creaky implausibilities and narrative dishonesties of its script. In its opening sequence, for
example, The Boxer introduces the primary restraint on Day-Lewis and Watson's reunion:
While Danny was in jail, Maggie married Danny's best friend, only to see him also carted
off to prison.
As the wife of a political prisoner, we are told, Maggie is supposed to be jealously guarded by all the
IRA men in the neighborhood from any lad who comes a-courtin'. Because of their prior romantic
involvement, the IRA views Danny's return as a high-risk development for Maggie, and
so, as they pledge in every third scene, they are especially dedicated to watching his (and
her) every move.
What do we make, then, of a scene where Maggie and Danny walk together and embrace
on an open stretch of beach? Or of his not-quite-surreptitious evening visits to her home?
Why would the IRA allow him to rebuild a boxing ring in the very building, on the very
floor, where Maggie teaches pre-school? In the Believability Department, these events
rank right up there with "World's Most Venal Misanthropist Falls in Love with Gay
Neighbor's Pug-Nosed Pooch."
Like As Good As It Gets, then, Sheridan's film is far more interested in raising the potential
for conflict than in actually sustaining any. This screenwriting cowardice is most
conspicuous in each film's romantic arc, where intelligent people are made myopic and
thorny situations improbably rosier so the audience may be treated to a romantic union
based on nothing but dramatic necessity. Since we never even glimpse Maggie's husband,
the new marriage itself comes across as just one more artificial obstacle in the path of
How can a love affair retain any drama when the filmmakers will literally rewrite their own
scripts to achieve them? During one rendezvous, Danny blusters to Maggie, "I love you;
there is nothing else to say." The Boxer would have been a more involving and responsible
film had it acknowledged that two lovers, separated for fourteen years and divided by
political and personal allegiances, should have a great deal more to say indeed.
What finally killed The Boxer, then, may have been . . .
3. The Amistad Complex, by which filmmakers pursue multiple ambitions and
messages which, sadly, trip all over each another. Amistadalternately desirous of being a heated
condemnation of slavery, an academic dissection of American property laws, and, most
peculiarly, a love-letter to a doddery, plant-potting John Quincy Adamschased its own
tail for two and a half hours, but its intentions, however confused, were unquestionably
sincere and decent.
The Boxer, on the contrary, ends on a political gesture so arbitrary, and an emotional
climax so undeserved, that its opacity and wrongheadedness become even more absolute.
In other words, by the film's end, no one can know exactly what kind of message Sheridan
& Co. had in mind. For a filmmaker who made such a bold, angry, but clear statement with In the
Name of the Father, this diffuseness of meaning is quite a step back.
The Boxer's cast and crew have been great in the past and will be great again, but their
efforts could not save this patient. Like pugilists of the lowest rank, the film just flailed
and stumbled without discipline until the inevitable mortal blow. So for now, in a different
metaphor of boxing altogether, this one belongs in the kind of box that gets nailed shut
and buried six feet under. D+