There's a new Zalman King in town, and his name is Lee Daniels. The producer of Monster's Ball has wriggled behind the director's chair, and his gleefully sordid Shadowboxer doles out generous portions of graphic sex, violence, and profanity with slo-mo and florid settings. You know you're in for trouble when the first discernable line of dialogue is "I'm busting my ass killin' motherfuckers for a living and I have to come home to this shit." Amen.
Shadowboxer is a rubbernecker's movie for the crash of Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Daniels (Mirren's untouchable, but the other two may have unwisely risked their careers on this project). Mirren plays Rose, a Philadelphia hitwoman dying of cancer. Popping pills and Wild Turkey, Rose languishes, accepts a last gig, then ropes her stepson-lover Mikey (Gooding) into the deal. Sadistic mobster Clayton (Stephen Dorff) wants his pregnant wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito) offed, but Rose can't bring herself to consummate the contract when Vickie's water breaks at the sight of a silenced pistol. Instead, Rose plays midwife and Mikey becomes stepfather to Vickie's child.
Everyone talks slowly, quietly, and portentously in Shadowboxer, except for the director, whose gonzo style is trashily loud (admittedly, the photography is occasionally snazzy, but then it's overwrought). Daniels' film is almost always laughable, but only sometimes intentionally. Dorff definitively crosses into self-parody, with pet zebra, post-shooting "O Christmas Tree" rendition, and "You like pina coladas, don't you?" pick-up line, delivered to mouthy Macy Gray (in a good move, he delivers a redemptive turn in Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center).
And then there's Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the suspiciously young mob doctor with the druggie girlfriend, Precious (Mo'Nique): here's an odd couple that could've fueled a fun thriller-comedy, but they remain on the confusing margins. The hits just keep on comin', with a wheelchair-bound contact in a suit who doles out jobs and payments. When the dialogue becomes resolutely insensible (Mikey: "I can't do this shit anymore." Man in wheelchair: "You're a good kid"), one begins to suspect the whole movie is some sort of psychological test for critics or perhaps avant-garde cinema we're just not prepared to understand yet.
If incidents don't follow clearly from each other—and they don't—and years pass unconvincingly, Shadowboxer ironically resembles Rose's view of death: "You leave something behind." Daniels gets points for the residue of boldness even in the face of badness. Shadowboxer may be perfectly dreadful, but Daniels goes for the gusto. Any film that gets laughs for its hilariously inappropriate dedications (one to his Uncle Reggie, right on the heels of the silly ending, and another at the end of the scroll, "To Philadelphia—my city of cinematic love!") can't be all bad.