For his directorial debut, actor Rick Schroder ventures far afield from the mean streets of New York, his home on TV’s “NYPD Blue.” But despite its obvious good intentions, Native American boxing drama “Black Cloud” is a predictable formula pic that would scarcely make the undercard of a 1940s double-feature. No “Million Dollar Indian,” pic lumps together shopworn cliches of both sports movies and American Indian films, leaving viewers with a seen-it-all-before feel. Theatrical forecast for limited-release pic (which opened in a handful of markets March 11) looks murky, with sunnier prospects on cable and homevid.
A young Navajo man with lethal fists, Black Cloud (Eddie Spears) only feels at home in the boxing ring where he can unleash his pent-up rage over his mother’s death, his father’s alcoholism and the fact that he himself is not a full-blood Indian. (His great-great grandfather was a white man.)
When he’s not in the ring, he still picks fights. He gets into a brutal scuffle with loud-mouthed rodeo rider Eddie (Schroder) — who fathered a child with Black Cloud’s girlfriend, Sammi (Julia Jones). He places a chokehold on a sleazy housing official (“Seinfeld” alum Wayne Knight). Even when Black Cloud attracts the attention of a visiting Olympic boxing scout (Peter Greene), he nearly blows the opportunity by letting his fiery temper get the better of him.
Fortunately, Black Cloud has one of those wise, sage-like trainers (Russell Means in the de facto Burgess Meredith/Pat Morita/Clint Eastwood role) to set him straight over and over again throughout the rest of pic. Along the way, there’s a couple of those inevitable training montages set to uplifting pop ballads, lots of inserts of eagles soaring and desert winds blowing, and not one but two scenes in which Black Cloud “crosses over into the spirit world” to commune with dead relatives.
That pic is unapologetically hokey goes without saying, but it never builds up the emotional intensity that might allow it to transcend that hokeyness. In comparison, last year’s Showtime-produced basketball drama, “Edge of America” — also set in the Native American community and also featuring Spears (alongside Schroder’s fellow “NYPD” vet, James McDaniel) — managed to generate much more feeling and connection to its characters. In particular, the relationship between Black Cloud and Sammi is critically underdeveloped.
To its credit, “Black Cloud” manages to avoid much of the retrograde us-vs.-them stereotyping common to films about the Native American experience. Though the movie has its fair share of racial-epithet-spouting good-ole-boys and pious shamans, the protagonist’s rash moral judgments are often proven wrong and a sheriff (Tim McGraw) who at first appears to be a proverbial white devil emerges as a more complex characterization. Yet such deviations from the expectation ultimately prove the exception in “Black Cloud.”
A long-gestating labor of love for Scottsdale resident Schroder, almost entirely Arizona-lensed pic sports some lovely local scenery and generally professional, if unexceptional craft contributions.