Wringing every last little bit of pathos from every knock life deals his hapless hero, tyro scribe-helmer Mark Mahon endlessly piles old boxing-pic cliches — from everything from “The Champ” to “The Quiet Man” to “Rocky” — atop one another with the earnestness of one who believes he invented the genre. Fine widescreen lensing by Alan Almond and a manly star turn by Michael Madsen render the schmaltz palatable, but the script delivers a series of low blows to the intelligence from which auds will never recover. Opening Dec. 7 in Gotham and L.A., slice of Irish blarney will likely fade fast.
Madsen plays Sean Kelleher, a man who doesn’t know his own strength, kayoing his brother-in-law into heaven during a friendly sparring match. Camera very slowly pulls up from the pieta in the ring and cuts to seven years later. Now Sean’s wife lies dying in a hospital bed; Sean has sworn off fighting and become a successful luxury car salesman.
Then, only weeks after the funeral, Sean’s little son Mikey (Luke Whelton) is stricken with the same rare heart disease. But wait, he can be saved! — but only by an experimental procedure performed by one surgeon in the U.S. for $250,000. Alas, Sean has no money.
Enter the Travelers (the gypsies, not the insurance company). They hold a yearly bare-knuckle boxing match whose purse would just about cover the operation. Unfortunately, the current title-holder is a sadistic bully named Smasher (Vinnie Jones) who has already killed two men in the ring and gotten away with it. Undaunted, Sean gets back into shape; a montage shows him moving inexorably toward fitness at a quasi-miraculous rate, helped along by his gruff old church trainer (a ludicrously miscast Richard Chamberlain).
Sean finds an alternative family in the Travelers, complete with young acolyte and fellow boxer Chase (Michael Rawley, impressive); feisty, sexy matriarch Mammy (a commanding Gail Fitzpatrick); and wise “Papa Boss” (Patrick Bergin, looking spookily like a reincarnation of Jack Warden), who all tuck him under their collective wing.
The early rounds of the boxing competition — staged with no rings and few rules, with six matches fought simultaneously in various pockets of the surging crowd — are shot and edited with free-form kinetic energy, the strutting contenders injecting some welcome, if brutal, humor into the proceedings. The tension and intense physicality of the main bouts would be greatly enhanced, however, were Mahon not also consciously enacting a struggle between Good and Evil, with church crosses and goat heads duking it out for symbolic supremacy.
Mahon can’t resist turning on the waterworks at every juncture, and the pic becomes an exercise in sentimental overkill. Pro tech credits enhance the otherwise underthought, overwrought material.