Fight films have been around almost as long as the movies themselves. Wallace Beery’s “The Champ” dates from 1931, Errol Flynn’s “Gentleman Jim” from 1942. “Requiem For A Heavyweight” in 1962 told a story of boxing industry corruption which featured a young Muhammad Ali. The “Karate Kid”‘s were hits in the 80’s, the “Rocky”‘s kept coming from the 70’s and 80’s right into the 90’s. One of last year’s biggest indie successes was “Girlfight.” My earliest recollection of kickboxing in a motion picture dates I think from John Cusack’s 1989 portrayal of a hopeful young proponent of the sport in Cameron Crowe’s directorial debut Say Anything.
Well, put fifty pounds on that character and twenty years behind him and you have perhaps someone something like the haunted figure inhabited by Marc Sandler in the independent release “Shadow Glories.” Sandler, who wrote the script two decades ago and has been struggling to get it made ever since, stars as Simon Penn, a hulking ex-fighter who physically suggests a crossbreeding of Ernest Borgnine with Jason Alexander. As the story opens, Penn’s long since left the ring due to his growing distaste for the cruelty of the sport and violence in general, with a female friend and fighter (Sarah Rachel Isenberg) opened a martial arts studio in his hometown of Lewiston, Maine and resolved to patch things up with his estranged wife, played by Linda Amendola, whom he hasn’t seen for close to two years.
The anti-violence and martial arts-instructing components of the character at first appear at odds but Sandler wastes no time explaining that he’s teaching kids to fight so they won’t ever have to. “That’s irony” he points out to a favorite student. Equally ironic is what happens when his young partner, a hungry and highly promising kickboxer in her own right, gets it into her head that she wants a crack at the reigning Northeast Men’s Champion. Still looking for redemption for the blood he’s shed in the course of his career, Penn finds his sense of loyalty drawing him back into the game when she asks him to offer guidance as her coach and manager.
Sandler’s character goes into soul search overload: Now that he’s been given a second chance by his wife, can he break his promise to stay away from the ring? Will he lose the respect and trust of his students if they find out what he’s really all about? Should he honor his friend’s wish to take on the champ or do everything in his power to keep her from taking so grave a risk?
As if the guy doesn’t have enough on his mind, there’s a whole back story he’s got to grapple with on top of all that. “A lifetime ago” as he puts it, he himself faced Killer Kuzinski and the confrontation resulted in the turning point in Penn’s career. Kuzinski, a musclebound freak played effectively by Michæl Denney, won the match by decision but suffered such crushing punishment that he spent months in rehabilitation afterward. During this time, Kuzinski points out, the national title was Penn’s for the taking but, rather than realize his lifelong dream, he mysteriously elected to leave the game behind. Years later, as his old opponent rubs his face in this lost opportunity, Sandler’s character is torn between his decision to eschew violence and his desire to take a better late than never shot at the title vicariously through his protoge.
You can almost hear Michæl Corleone implode that now famous line “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!” I suspect Sandler is on intimate terms with that scene and has internalized its emotional circuitry. In writing the script for “Shadow Glories.” he clearly aimed for epic on a budget-level character study. The end result may be something between that and by-the-numbers melodrama but for every shoestring action saga cliche- well, maybe every ten- the picture does succeed in delivering a credible and memorable moment.
The actor’s about as likely a dramatic leading man as Drew Carey, yet he demonstrates range. In an instant the rage in his eye can be replaced by a winning twinkle. His script, as I’ve intimated, covers a good deal of familiar ground but elements – especially its ending – pack a raw jolt. For a film made with limited means, the direction, score and fight choreography are surprisingly first rate in places. And, speaking of places, the people who made this picture must be good because they managed something I would have thought impossible without the help of cutting edge Hollywood technology: They made Lewiston, Maine look interesting. I know the level of artistry that required having grown up in the comatose mill town myself.
All in all, a watchable, worthwhile example of its genre, the picture offers a timely anti-violence message but now faces a high stakes contest of its own. The film will duke it out with some pretty heavyweight competition when it makes its New England debut this weekend (the largest in the region’s history for an independent production). They may have struggled for twenty years to get their kickboxing morality tale on celluloid but, with the likes of Ben Stiller, Denzel Washington and Anthony Hopkins stepping into the ring, the makers of “Shadow Glories” now face the fight of their lives.