Hot thesp Diego Luna flexes his helming skills in “Chavez,” an affectionate portrait of Mexico’s most famous boxer and favored export, Julio Cesar Chavez. Both a traditional take on the old rags-to-riches sports story as well as an exploration of the way unsophisticated celebrities are manipulated by unscrupulous politicos and promoters, docu maintains a warmly sympathetic regard for the man and the sport. Produced by maverick shingle Canana, started by Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal (here exec-producing), pic will find its biggest auds south of the border, but emigres and fests should provide exposure outside Latin America.
Chavez’s life plays like the classic boxing tale: an industrious poor kid from the sticks lifts himself and his family up from respectable poverty through the strategic use of his fists. Earning the moniker “Mr. Knockout” early on, Chavez went on to win more title fights than any other fighter, including Joe Lewis and Muhammad Ali.
Luna doesn’t really address how Chavez dealt with the accompanying adulation, though after his marriage collapsed, he too began to crumble. Once in the big-time, with an international reputation to foster, he became one of Don King’s pawns, but in Mexico, it was his association with president Carlos Salinas de Gortari that brought him the most trouble. Salinas used Chavez’s popularity to boost his own power base. Once Salinas was out of office, the new president targeted Salinas’ associates. Charged with tax evasion, Chavez saw all the money he earned going to pay back taxes, forcing the physically compromised boxer into the ring longer than was advisable.
Though there are plenty of fight scenes, Luna understands that a boxing story’s fascination isn’t with the punches but in the excess that comes from brute force, the rise and fall of a man through the simple, primal use of his fists. During the lead-up to Chavez’s final fight in Phoenix, Luna keeps the camera locked on his hero’s face, drawing out a wordless, intense psychological profile that lasts well into the champion’s defeat. While much is made of Chavez’s switch to career manager for his boxer son, there’s no escaping the sense of anticlimax that comes from all athletes who’ve allowed outside forces, rather than real punches, to beat them down.
Miraculously, Luna has found the helming equivalent to his breezy brand of thesping charm, maintaining a warm, easy technique that masks his more studied technical achievements. He’s well served by Mariana Rodriguez’s superb editing, beautifully exhibited in a montage of B&W fight photos cut to the beat of heavy percussion music, as if the film itself were a flip book. Blowups from a variety of sources give the whole an appealing texture.