Another week, another boxing drama. Is there some sort of secret union requirement that stipulates that every male actor must at some stage play a plucky outsider or a washed-up pro taking his One Last Shot? This time, the bell dings and up steps Mathieu Kassovitz, for French director Samuel Jouy’s debut feature, a thoroughly competent, amiably performed and completely unremarkable bout with the clichés of this bloated category.
It’s strange that the sport of pugilism should have given rise to such a comfortable, unchallenging formula, but within those cosy parameters, “Sparring” functions perfectly capably. Kassovitz plays Steve Landry, a boxer approaching the end of an undistinguished career in which his stats, which he is humiliatingly forced to reel off on regular occasions, comprise far more losses than wins. Indeed, our introduction to Steve is him doing the walk of shame back to the dressing room after his latest defeat, passing by the celebratory hubbub of his opponent’s entourage, while melancholic choral music plays. The striking thing about his demeanor is his lack of surprise or particularly acute disappointment. Steve is practiced in the art of losing.
For a time, then, through this woozy beginning, when Steve’s status is established as a bouncer refuses to let him back in to the hall he’s just fought in, through to him gingerly patching himself up in a bathroom and peeing blood, it seems like Jouy’s film might have a harsher remit than the standard boxing drama. But any hopes for a story that will shift the dial quickly fade: Steve is not an existentially inclined thinker, nor a mythic, Jake La Motta-esque cautionary tale, but a family man who dotes on his piano-playing, Dad-worshipping daughter Aurore (Billie Blain) and supportive, pretty wife Marion (an appealing debut from French-Finnish singer Olivia Merilahti, who also contributes the film’s largely electro score).
Facing the end of his career and mounting bills, Steve hustles to gain a position he’d previously scorned — that of a sparring partner for star boxer Tarek M’Bareck, played with authoritative natural charisma by real-life WBA champion Souleymane M’Baye. Despite being a less than adequate match for M’Bareck in the ring, Steve’s doggedness and hard-won experience endears him to the champ, and he becomes something of a talisman. That comes at its own price though: when Aurore is finally allowed to go and watch her father fight, it’s at an exhibition match where M’Bareck plays to the crowd by bobbing and weaving around the older, slower Steve and trash-talking his performance. Aurore’s face falls as she hears the crowd’s whistles of derision. Will Steve ever be able to win back his daughter’s admiration, to say nothing of his own self-respect? If only, having fought 49 of the 50 matches after which he’d promised Marion he would retire, he had One Last Shot.
The real opponent in any boxing drama is familiarity, and on that level, unfortunately, “Sparring” goes down in the first round. Aside from its French accent, there’s little to differentiate its father-child axis from that of “Southpaw” or “The Champ,” while even its lovable-slugger focus was more bouncily achieved in the recent Liev Schreiber-starrer “Chuck” (AKA “The Bleeder”). And while Kassovitz, who is more sympathetically assured in the film’s dramatic scenes than in the slightly pulled punches of its fight choreography, has obviously trained assiduously, his is not one of those extreme physical transformations that genre often encourages. It’s not quite clear if he would absolutely convince in the ring as a career fighter, even of the more leaden-footed variety, if the shooting and editing were a little less careful.
Jouy’s smoothly crafted, deliberately understated film betrays no neophyte lack of confidence. But neither does it demonstrate any of the idiosyncratic exuberance that can mark the emergence of a truly visionary new talent. In the parlance of the movie itself, it works dutifully through its beats, but never quite “dances,” and it’s ironically appropriate that the chief critique of journeyman Steve’s boxing all those years is that he never really found his own unique style. Neither floating like a butterfly nor stinging like a bee, but delivering, faithfully and predictably, like a postman, “Sparring” will do just fine until the next regularly-scheduled boxing drama arrives, and we get to do it all over again.