Cuba Gooding Jr. is this movie’s shadowboxer, Mikey, an orphan raised by white stepmother Rose (Helen Mirren) and trained to be an assassin. A driven yet childlike figure, Mikey is bound to Rose through incestuous sex and a business partnership in which they kill for money. Rose is dying of cancer, and they both agree to one last hit, but Rose’s moral conscience is awakened when she learns the victim, gangster’s wife Vickie, is pregnant. Rose convinces Mikey to take Vickie on the run from her vicious husband.
This pulpy drama is the directorial debut of indie producer Lee Daniels. He really wants to make a mark here, with unorthodox casting (Gooding and Mirren, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Mo’Nique as lovers) and camp references (Valley of the Dolls). Too bad Shadowboxer becomes a messy, stylized, nearly unwatchable film, filled with arty flourishes. The cross-racial relationships are dishonest, and so much for the diversity in casting: Mo’Nique and Macy Gray play drug-addled, humiliating grotesques. How unsurprising that Shadowboxer’s screenwriter also wrote Monster’s Ball, which pathologized black womanhood (and degraded Halle Berry all the way to an Oscar).
Shadowboxing could be an interesting metaphor for black male experience in America. The vigilance of the “cool pose,” the warrior-like mental training for threats, it’s all there. But Daniels’ self-conscious “wrestling” with issues of black male identity in Western culture is lost in the fake-arty incoherence.
Thankfully, Gooding transcends the muck, giving a sexy, muscular performance. Gooding is maligned as an actor because he makes so plain the ambitious black male’s need for acceptance, an embarrassing fact in a racist society. He brings intriguing subtext to an unworthy film.
Opens July 21