It’s a little Euro, a little homo and a little ghetto, and [actors] love being in that world. They work for nothing and some potato chips.
—Lee Daniels, “Lee Daniels Morphs From Iconoclastic Producer Into an Iconoclastic Director,” (New York Times, 20 July 2006)
Clayton (Stephen Dorff) is one of those outsized movie villains. He’s the sort who wears his designer shirt unbuttoned and beard slightly fuzzy, shoots his minions when they fail him, and keeps a zebra on his front lawn. He can’t help himself: he suspects his pretty, pouty-lipped young wife of cheating. This even as she’s nine months pregnant and obviously (not to mention reasonably) afraid of him. The first time you see Clayton in Shadowboxer, he’s taking out his rage and doubt on the man with whom she’s supposedly sleeping, a slimy, frantic nobody laid out on a pool table, readied for sodomy with a cue stick. And not just any cue stick. A cue stick that Clayton breaks in half before he applies it.
Yes, Clayton is a monster. And so, according to the standard dynamic deployed by this overheated noiry melodrama, he makes his enemies seem relatively sane, even sympathetic. At first, Rose (Helen Mirren) and Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.) are not even his enemies, but his employees. Super-efficient assassins who charge top dollar and meet with an intermediary in a wheelchair, Andrew (Tom Pasch), who pleasantly asks after their health as he hands them glossy photos of targets, Rose and Mikey are also stepmother and -son, and lovers. They’re also, perhaps inevitably, coming apart: while he keeps in frankly astounding shape by boxing drills, she’s dying of cancer. They maintain their intimacy through sex and work, their perfectly choreographed hits demonstrating their shared confidence and rhythm.
While their profession is both odious and familiar (they’re movie assassins, as outsized in their way as Clayton), Mikey and Rose’s sexual relationship is less commonplace; a flashback shows a much younger Rose, at the time little Mikey’s father’s girlfriend, as she discovers the man beating his son. Without an apparent moment of reflection, she shoots him dead and takes the boy off with her, their relationship sealed in a seemingly primal understanding of violence, threat, and survival.
Back in the present, they do their best to ignore Rose’s illness: when she worries that she’s being punished for her sins, Mikey sighs, “It’s cancer, Rose, it’s just cancer.” (Her worry doesn’t stop her from filling ashtrays with cigarettes and downing glasses of Wild Turkey.) And when a job comes along, they take it. The mark this time is Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), the very wife Clayton has accused of cheating. They know who she is, but they also know not to cross their employer. Their entry into her home (the zebra outside grazing) is precise and fierce; the bodyguards bumble to get at their guns, then lie dead in an instant. By the time the killers reach the bedroom, they and Vickie know it will soon be done. Her water breaks. Rose stops, thinks, and instructs Mikey to fetch water and ice while she leans over the sweating, frightened girl. “He wants you dead,” Rose hisses. “Now push!”
It’s something like a stunning moment, as Dame Helen Mirren delivers this most bizarre line with a combination of flatness and wonder. Such absurdities seem almost to lurk in the corners of Shadowboxer, popping up just when the narrative seems unbearably trite. From here, the film’s unanswerable central question—how does violence shape lives, even as it brings death?—turns into something more banal, concerning parents’ effects on children. Is the capacity for violence nurtured or genetic or some unfathomable combination? While Mikey seems a product of his father’s ferocity as well as Rose’s own mix of brutality and devotion, the child he spares reluctantly also lacks options: “I know how you feel,” Mikey says. “Only a day old and everyone wants you dead.”
By contrast, Rose sees in the baby a sign, perhaps a chance to redo her relationship with Mikey, a way to give life instead of dealing in death. “It’s a gift from God,” she insists, and Mikey agrees to whatever she wants. They’ll spend the rest of their lives hiding Vickie and her child away in the burbs. Clayton, being a monster and all, is relentless.
At once distrait and dreary, operatic and prosaic, Shadowboxer careens from startling violence to ridiculous romance, with detours into pointless reconsiderations of Mikey and Rose’s occupation. In spite of himself, when he’s called on to kill someone who keeps pictures of his daughter in his office, Mikey is suddenly horrified that he’s murdered someone’s father, now that he’s feeling like a father himself (not to mention a singular in-drag assassination, a scene that’s not so much unforeseeable as it is wholly nutty). Mikey can’t escape himself, and yet that’s what being a father means to him.
The baby’s welfare is soon driving all their decisions. To ensure his health, Rose calls on Dr. Don (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), also affiliated with Clayton, who arrives with his crack-ho girlfriend and nurse, Precious (Mo’Nique). When they show up—so oddly coupled and standing alongside Rose and Mikey outside the hideout motel where they’ve hidden Vickie and the baby—you almost wish the film would drop the whole family unit development and follow them: what are they doing together? What does she see in him?
Even more intriguing is the seeming minute and a half of screen time filled to bursting by Macy Gray as Neisha, Vickie’s best friend. She mouths off to Clayton, angry and full of sand. But she succumbs to Mikey, who picks her up in a bar, tricked out in the most outrageous track suit this side of LL Cool J. No matter her unsurprising grisly fate, Neisha is rowdy, weird, and out of place. And that takes some doing in Shadowboxer.
Shadowboxer - Theatrical Trailer