“Victor ‘Young’ Perez” is enjoyable if unmemorable, so long as it portrays the life of its titular figure, a Jewish Tunisian who was at one point the lightweight boxing champion of the world. It turns heavy-handed, however, when dealing with his death: While levity is hardly called for, Jacques Ouaniche’s straightforward biopic is so stereotypical in its portrayal of sneering Nazi sadism that the tale’s tragic impact is considerably blunted. Period drama lacks the kind of galvanizing lead perf that might attract attention to an otherwise uninspired treatment, a la “La Vie en Rose.” Synkronized is handling U.S. theatrical release through distrib arm Millennium, dates as yet unannounced. Several other territories have also bought rights for what should prove a viable if not wildly lucrative item in multiple formats.
After a brief introductory sequence in a late-1944 Polish prison camp, Yoni Darmon and Ouaniche’s screenplay jumps back to 1929 Tunisia, where Benjamin Perez (Steve Suissa) is a promising boxing contender and little bro Victor (Brahim Asloum) just a wannabe. But when Ben is sidelined by injury, Victor gets his chance. Suddenly both are en route to Paris as new additions (Ben as Victor’s trainer) to the stable of promoter Leon Bellieres (Patrick Bouchitey). Initially ignored because of his small size and foreign origin, Victor (known as “Young” Perez) quickly vaults to the top of his weight class when finally given another chance to show his stuff. He shrugs off the racism that denies him the French title (though they’re of Maltese descent, the brothers consider themselves as much French as North African), since soon enough he’ll be champion of all Europe.
And indeed he is. But such fame attracts people like Mireille Balin (Isabella Orsini), an aspiring-actress bombshell painted here as having a predictable taste for the expensive, glamorous and hedonistic things in life. Her influence is bad for his athletic discipline as well as his checkbook. When a disgusted Ben heads back to Tunisia, Victor’s career goes into freefall, with Mireille soon abandoning ship. (The real Balin had a successful onscreen run that didn’t survive WWII, as afterward she was branded a collaborator.) His increasingly dismal fortunes get worse when he’s arrested trying to deliver a friend’s message to a German Jewish family amid already widespread anti-Semitic persecution.
Now we’re back to the pic’s beginning, with a half-dead Victor “training” to box a beefy guard twice his size to amuse the camp commandant (Bruce Payne). The commandant is so superciliously evil, he might as well be twirling a Simon Legree-like mustache; his perfect blond children are so exaggeratedly stuck up, their noses literally point skyward. It strains credibility that somehow Victor and Ben should end up reunited in the same camp, let alone the same barracks. (Pic is “freely inspired” by its subject’s real story.) Then the bout arranged by the commandant to prove Aryan racial superiority — one of many such events that did indeed happen in Auschwitz — is prolonged past the point of blunt realism, into that realm where you question the filmmaker’s motivations for laying on the brutality so thick. This overemphasis on a fight whose outcome (and symbolic weight) could hardly be more obvious proves further ill judged when it turns out not to be quite the last page in Victor’s saga, anyway.
Asloum, a 2000 light flyweight Olympic gold medalist and pro world champ, adeptly plays a figure drawn as genial and naturally gifted in the ring, but also not terribly bright. If the pic ultimately lacks much real complexity, part of that can be blamed on a protagonist whose strengths and weaknesses are right there on the surface; he has no hidden depths. Other thesps are solid, and packaging is reasonably slick if not especially stylish or atmospheric, with the period flavor often hitting a glib, stereotypical note.