The third collaboration between director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, “The Boxer” is an involving but rather prosaic report from the Belfast front with a melancholy undertow of romantic yearning. Intelligently conceived and well- acted, this compact, straightforward drama about two ordinary people caught in the ongoing political crossfire packs enough punch to command audience interest, but won’t light up critics or the B.O. to the extent achieved by the team’s previous outings, “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father.”
One of the most arresting aspects of the film is the precision with which it defines the drift of Irish Republican Army thinking at this moment in time. Although the bad blood between Catholics and Protestants and the hatred of the British occupiers persist unabated, along with the inevitable bombings, snipings and deaths, the winds of peace and desire for a sustained cease-fire seem to have gained the upper hand. However, the only way to fully achieve this, the film suggests, is for remaining hard-liners to take the necessary step forward and stop living in the past.
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This sense of delicate optimism serves as the backdrop for a story in which the main characters remain heavily constrained by long-standing grudges and agendas. Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis), released after serving 14 years in prison for IRA activities, must literally sledgehammer his way into his old flat, which has been sealed up in the interim. Back in the old neighborhood, he can’t avoid occasionally crossing paths with Maggie (Emily Watson), his old flame from teenage days who is raising a boy, Liam, while the father languishes in prison. But incarceration has made Danny inward and withdrawn to the point of virtual uncommunicativeness, so the pair’s emotional reunion commences in fits and starts.
Although, at 32, already a ways over the hill, Danny is determined to get back in the boxing ring, where he once excelled as a member of the team at the local community center. The center’s gym has long since fallen into disuse, and a half-dozen of his old mates have died, but Danny, with the help of his alcoholic former trainer, Ike (Ken Stott), decides to get it back on its feet.
Despite the good this will do for the boys of the community, militant IRA members, led by the grim Harry (Gerard McSorley), oppose the nonsectarian nature of the operation. Harry also keeps an eagle eye on the former lovers, since he would regard any resumption of their romance as an unpardonable transgression against Maggie’s husband, who used to be Danny’s best friend.
For a time, the hard-liners are kept in check by Maggie’s father, Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), the local IRA chief who is busy walking a narrow tightrope between his loyal troops and the British, with whom he is hoping to consummate a lasting deal. As part of the center’s inaugural card, Danny puts in a shaky showing in his first return match. After aggravating Harry on a couple of fronts, such as tossing out some of his explosives and accepting a gift of equipment from the British cops, someone takes a shot at him.
Just as a settlement appears ever closer, a car bomb kills a British officer during the center’s next exhibition, igniting a melee that destroys the gym and threatens to set the peace process back years. Through it all, Danny and Maggie inch closer to each other, but the latter’s father warns her off, admitting that he can’t protect Danny from the likes of Harry.
Danny splits for London, where he essentially throws his career away in a near-surreal match staged in an elegant hall before a bunch of swells in evening wear. But things only get worse back at home, where young Liam rebels against his mother, Ike is murdered, and, upon his return, Danny is kidnapped by the unforgiving Harry. Climax contains a surprise or two, but prospects for the survivors at fadeout remain vague and rather too open for dramatic, as opposed to real-world, closure.
Day-Lewis and Watson are charismatic, highly talented thesps and turn in good, committed performances, but their roles here are too opaquely written by Sheridan and Terry George for their characters to become fully dimensional. That Danny and Maggie would want to resume their affair after a 14-year interval is entirely believable under the circumstances, with his having been stuck in prison and her in an unhappy marriage, but their relationship is explored in too little detail to engage one deeply. Danny’s inexpressiveness through half the running time doesn’t help, and Maggie’s husband exists merely as a plot impediment to her and Danny getting together, never as someone who comes to life in the viewer’s mind.
As opposed to the incompleteness of the foreground elements, the background comes into sharp focus indeed. The growing schism between factions within the IRA is vividly drawn. While McSorley’s lethal Harry comes off rather too melodramatically, Cox’s imposing political boss grandly suggests both the iron hand with which he has brought his cause this far, and the velvet glove he has now judiciously decided to wear.
The battle-scarred Belfast neighborhood settings have been ably doubled by Dublin locations, and tech credits are up to par, with Gerry Hambling’s editing moving matters along briskly and Chris Menges putting in an unshowy turn behind the camera. Zesty score by Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer contributes some agreeably unexpected textures. Ring action shows Day-Lewis in excellent shape, but the three onscreen bouts, while credible, don’t amount to much compared with those in many other boxing pics.