The Boxer
Reviewed in January 1998
Director: Jim Sheridan. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Brian Cox, Gerard McSorley, Ken Stott, Ciaran Fitzgerald. Screenplay: Jim Sheridan and Terry George.

Photo © 1997 Universal Pictures/Hell's Kitchen Films
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 cynical marketing.

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 Belfast—the sudden bomb blasts, the nightly sniper-fire—more 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 almost—almost—disguise 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 Love Restored.

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. Amistad—alternately 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 Adams—chased 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. Grade: D+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Jim Sheridan
Best Actor (Drama): Daniel Day-Lewis

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