Playing a second-rate boxing promoter who pins all his ambitions and financial security on his son’s bid for a world title, Michael Caine is in fine form in British director John Irvin’s “Shiner.” In a vivid, colorful role that seems tailor-made, the veteran actor remains compelling even as this somewhat hackneyed melodrama becomes increasingly overwrought. On the heels of his Oscar for “The Cider House Rules,” Caine’s presence could prompt a theatrical round or two, but the film’s hopes in the cable and ancillary ring appear more promising.
Billy “Shiner” Simpson (Caine) is a product of London’s rough East End, whose professional activities hover on (and sometimes cross over) the brink of illegality. He is banking on a match between his son, Eddie “Golden Boy” (Matthew Marsden), and a U.S. champion to deliver his long-overdue moment of glory.
Assisting Billy in readying the event are his thuggish bodyguard-drivers, former fighter Stoney (Frank Harper) and loutish new recruit Mel (Andy Serkis). While Billy’s loyal daughter Ruth (Claire Rushbrook) nervously oversees preparations for the post-match celebratory dinner, his other daughter Georgie (Frances Barber) accompanies cops to arrest Shiner for earlier organizing an illegal fight. But Billy smooth-talks his way into a reprieve until after the crucial match.
When Eddie is knocked out after only two rounds, Billy grabs his punch-drunk son and flees before the cops can take him in. His conviction that Eddie deliberately took a dive is reinforced when an unseen gunman shoots and kills the boy. Increasingly distraught over his son’s death and his own impending arrest and financial ruin, Billy sets out to discover whose hand was behind the evening’s disastrous events.
His suspicions bounce between Eddie’s coach, Vic (Gary Lewis); ruthless U.S. promoter Frank Spedding (Martin Landau), whose stock has begun to diminish and who sees the Simpson-organized London match as a career comedown; hard-edged Georgie and her lawyer husband, who also risk heavy losses; and Mel, who cannot account for his whereabouts when Eddie was shot. As Billy questions each of them, his rationality gives way to rage, despair and paranoia, eventually steering him to a blood-drenched, fatal final encounter.
While Irvin’s direction generally is unimaginative, things get off to a solid enough start. Screenwriter Scott Cherry quickly draws the audience into Shiner’s shady world and sketches in his background, adding plenty of humor to keep him sympathetic despite the brutality of some of his tactics. The verbal sparring between Stoney and Mel, and Billy’s impatient indulgence of them, create a lighter mood to counter the pre-match tension.
The fight is handled efficiently, with the action shot up close in a clingy, visceral style, depicting Eddie’s panic and exhaustion as he succumbs to the physical hammering while countless instructions are shouted at him.
But the energy gradually is dissipated in the fight’s messy aftermath, which culminates in a run of heavy-handed violence and a climactic face-off that clumsily shifts to center-screen a minor character in which the audience has no prior investment. Pedestrian TV-style music scoring only aggravates the weaknesses.
Keeping “Shiner” watchable despite these problems and its many stock plot ingredients, Caine makes his dialogue crackle, bringing real pathos to the ruthless small-time showman with big-time aspirations. His Billy is a man with no real class but lots of chutzpah, who eventually is crippled by unrealistic ambitions.
Even as the drama descends into excess, the actor’s balancing act of anger, love, disappointment, sorrow and bitterness over perceived betrayal remains controlled. Steady backup comes from Harper and Serkis, while Landau is wasted in an underwritten, one-dimensional secondary role.