Monster's Ball producer Lee Daniels makes his directorial debut with Shadowboxer, and it couldn't be clearer that he's trying to follow his previous formula for success. Oscar-caliber actors? Check. Interracial sex? Plenty. A violent demise or two, all in the service of character development? Oh, yes.
But Daniels maybe could have learned a thing or two from the porn industry: Audiences come for the girls. So while you can draw a crowd with naked Halle Berry getting it on with Billy Bob, it just isn't quite the same seeing naked Helen Mirren getting ravished by Cuba Gooding Jr. Or Joseph Gordon-Levitt making out with Mo'Nique. (Though it may be that some ladies and gay men have been dying to see Stephen Dorff's equipment, in which case, those prayers are answered.)
If reducing what is apparently intended to be a serious, meditative story of adopted sons to the sum of its nude scenes seems unduly crass, it's only because the rest of the movie is rather silly — profoundly stupid when it aspires to be profound. Gooding is a hit man. Helen Mirren is a hit woman named Rose who is dying of cancer and seemingly staying alive on cocktails of Percocet, OxyContin, Wild Turkey, and coffee. She's starting to think about God and heaven and all that stuff, but Gooding's Mikey reassures her that “It's just cancer, Rose.” In a satirical swipe at societal beauty standards, various characters throughout the story keep complimenting Rose on her weight loss.
Rose and Mikey have an odd relationship: She was his father's lover, and basically adopted him at a young age after Dad's death. But now that he's old enough, they fuck. Theirs remains more of a mother-son relationship, however, with Rose bossing Mikey around and Mikey doing everything she wants with no backtalk.
You've probably guessed by now that the story involves the ubiquitous One Last Job, during the course of which something unexpected happens that sends our murderous heroes on the run. The hitch in question is that their quarry is the very pregnant Vickie (Angelina Jolie look-alike Vanessa Ferlito), whose water breaks the second Rose points a gun at her. Suddenly sentimental about mortality, Rose decides to deliver the baby and save both mother and child. Mikey's not happy, but he does what he's told. What we know that they don't is that the execution order was something of a trivial whim to begin with: Vickie is the wife of Dorff's criminal, Clayton, who has decided to have her killed based on an underling's boast — and possible lie — that he slept with her.
The rest of the movie deals with the new life led by Vickie, her child, and her new protectors as an unorthodox family unit. Clayton eventually finds out, but years pass before we get to that. Mikey, having been a very oddly adopted son, now becomes an unusual sort of foster father, and the kid never questions that this is his real dad, despite the rather obvious pigmentation differences that ought to clue him in somewhere along the line.
Much of the movie is just too unintentionally goofy to take at face value — most notably the tearfully uttered line “I killed a little boy's father today,” which instantaneously sparks some heavy sympathy sex. But there is one scene that's intentionally funny, and it involves Mikey trying to seduce and kill a self-described “crazy-ass bitch” played by Macy Gray. To achieve this, he dresses up like LL Cool J and gets her drunk, actually asking the bartender if he can make their drinks “to go.” Gray's delivery of the line “You wanna fuuuuuck?” is priceless.
A colleague at the screening suggested that there's a very simple Stephen Dorff rule — if he's in the movie, it'll suck. Looking back over his filmography, Blade seems to be the only project worth talking about, and even that was overrated, boasting special effects that were state-of-the-art at the time but look pretty feeble now. Dorff, it turns out, is the best thing in Shadowboxer. Enough said.