A correction was made to this review on July 15, 2004.
In “Fighting Tommy Riley,” the winner by a knockout is Eddie Jones. The vet thesp, regularly seen in colorful supporting roles, flexes his considerable muscles as an aging trainer helping revive the career of a boxer who has lost faith in himself. Without Jones, pic is a standard drama on the sweet science with the usual tropes and a slight tweak on the usual conflicts. With Jones, matchups with fests and distribs are possible, while the cable arena is a sure thing.
Tommy (screenwriter J.P. Davis), all pumped up for his match, mentally flashes back seven months to the time he and g.f. Stephanie (Christina Chambers) broke up and when he was berated in a boxing gym for being too aggressive. But his low point was witnessed by boxing manager Diane Stone (Diane M. Tayler) and her partner-trainer Marty (Jones), who liked what he saw in the kid.
At first, Marty appears to be the stock figure typical in boxing movies, the older, wiser man who sees greatness where others see a loser. Marty starts by testing Tommy in a gym match against a tough sparring partner, while reminding the short-fused boxer that he needs a bit of anger management.
In the heart-to-heart scenes between Marty and Tommy — so obligatory in the genre and so often phoned in by actors — Jones personally pushes the movie to a higher emotional plane. An actor who tends not to just inhabit his roles but move right in and take over the mortgage, Jones appears to understand Marty’s empathy for Tommy at a gut level. Jones’ Marty is several divisions and degrees away from Burgess Meredith’s needling codger in “Rocky,” and smart enough to spot Tommy’s habit of faking injuries.
Director Eddie O’Flaherty demonstrates a flair for widescreen framing, but keeps to a routine moviemaking style (d.p. Michael Fimognari’s vid-lensed image was undercut by vid projection at the Los Angeles fest premiere, though a film transfer is promised). Montages of Tommy’s fresh string of victories alternate with private dramas between him and Marty, and then Stephanie, who returns to the picture a little too easily.
A retreat to the woods for training before a title bout raises the stakes, even as Tommy gets pressure from powerful, smooth-tongued fight promoter Bob Silver (Paul Raci) to sign with him and leave Marty. The old trainer has his own secrets and desires, which Jones manages to keep so well hidden that when they burst forth, it has the shock of a jolting scene in an Arthur Miller play. The film doesn’t end in Milleresque tragedy, though, but with a grown-up sense of loss.
Davis seems initially too good-looking to take seriously, but he grows into a role he wrote for himself, and Tayler does a pro job of playing counterpoint to whatever Marty has to say. Though it always feels too staged when the action’s outside the ring, pic has a sweaty background feel that’s impressive for an indie production, and fight scenes play like the real deal. Print screened contained wall-to-wall temp tracks from some of Thomas Newman’s and Hans Zimmer’s better, moodier scores.