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Lacking Punch

[whitespace] The Boxer
Ringside Seat: Daniel Day-Lewis battles his past in 'The Boxer.'

Jim Sheridan's 'The Boxer' is slow on its feet

By Richard von Busack

IN THE NEW FILM The Boxer, Daniel Day-Lewis learns that there are substantial penalties for an early withdrawal from his IRA. After serving 14 years for crimes committed with the Irish Republican Army, Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) tries to restart his old life in East Belfast. Flynn lost everything when he was imprisoned, including his girl, Maggie (Emily Watson of Breaking the Waves). Danny tries to go back to boxing, reminding his friends that Archie Moore was 42 when he won the heavyweight title. Meanwhile, the cease-fire is finally proclaimed, and a gossamer-fragile peace breaks out, much to the disgust of hard-line IRA officer Harry (Gerard McSorley), who is beginning to develop quite a grudge against Danny for a few reasons, especially that he turned his back on his fellow IRA compatriots in jail.

Not counting Watson, the best part of The Boxer is its atmosphere. There are shots of checkpoints, security gratings and armored cars stenciled with anonymous tip-line numbers. Director Jim Sheridan also provides some details of the war in Ulster that might be news to some. Did you know that the IRA would sometimes booby trap the dead body of someone they killed, so that whoever tried to claim the corpse would become a corpse themselves? To give contrast to the urban decay, there's a confusing visit to the tuxedoed decadence of a British boxing club. What's going on in these scenes? Are there actually private British boxing clubs where they have apparently unregulated fights?

Sheridan, who directed Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, frames this tale of the Troubles as a standard melodrama. Predictability ends up being both the virtue and weakness of such entertainment. It's easy to follow and easy to outguess. Day-Lewis shows the unhappy signs of metamorphosing from actor to movie star. There's a slumming movie star's calculation in his close-ups and a desperate physicality in his boxing scenes. When Sheridan first directed him, Day-Lewis only moved his left foot; now he goes in for punishing bouts of jump roping so we can see how hard he's worked on his footwork. The fakery of Sheridan's fight scenes is very much post-Raging Bull. These fights defy the fact that in boxing few of the blows connect. In movies about boxing, though, you stand your ground, as Homer Simpson did in his bout with that parody version of Mike Tyson, and take all the punishment you can. (Thanks to critic Manny Farber, who first observed this trend back when Kirk Douglas was in boxing pictures.)

Contrast Day-Lewis' dubiousness to the absolute genuineness of Brian Cox as an aging local leader of the IRA. Cox looks like he's been through the wars. Watson's childlike but wizened Maggie is similarly real. Obviously it's not the sun that ages faces in Northern Ireland. Though Watson is as young and fresh as any actress alive, she's taken on a mask of wariness and weariness. When her Maggie hesitates for a second before finally embracing Danny, she suggests not coquettishness but a woman who knows the price of accepting a kiss.

The Boxer (R; 131 min.), directed Jim Sheridan, written by Terry George and Sheridan, photographed by Chris Menges and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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