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Oedipal Assassins

Shadowboxer starts off with a bang (literally) as young Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.) pulls the trigger of his father’s gun shattering the mirror he’s looking at and with this simple act he becomes an assassin just like his dad. While the act of pulling a trigger may have been simple, the life that is thrust upon Mikey is the furthest thing from simple.

Years later, Mikey is a seasoned and hardened assassin who does jobs with his stepmother/lover, Rose (Helen Mirren). Their "partnership" is fruitful in more ways than one and this partnership would continue to bear fruit were Rose not dying of cancer. The couple gets assigned a job to knock off a brutal crime lord’s pregnant wife and Rose suddenly develops a conscience. Life starts to mean a bit more when you have little of it left yourself.

Shadowboxer could have easily been a straight up noir flick about two romantically entangled assassins, but with debut director Lee Daniel (producer of Monster’s Ball) we get something a bit more bizarre starting with the relationship between Mikey and Rose.

Rose wears the pants in this relationship and is all too willing to take off Mikey’s, which makes some sense given that Rose effectively raised Mikey as her own child for years. This decidedly oedipal relationship could easily make one feel uncomfortable, but given their isolated existence, it’s not like there are a lot of viable alternatives for either one of them.

Mirren is a tremendous performer and she does a reasonable job as Rose, but this role feels like a bit of a stretch for her. It’s hard to imagine an assassin still being gainfully employed after about the age of 35 and Rose is at least 50. Given an assassin’s need to have keenly honed faculties, advanced age would seem to necessitate early retirement.

Cuba Gooding Jr. on other hand puts forth a cool, steely performance that is reminiscent of his stellar turn in Snow Dogs (kidding!). In all seriousness, Gooding’s performance rivals Cuba’s performances in Boyz In The Hood, Jerry Maguire, and As Good As It Gets. Mikey is great at what he does, but he’s not a completely cold-blooded killer as we learn in the latter stages of the film. Gooding gracefully handles Mikey’s complexity.

The other performance worth mentioning is Stephen Dorff’s searing portrayal of the vicious crime lord, Clayton. Dorff previously established his gift for playing nefarious villains as Deacon Frost in Blade. Clayton makes Deacon Frost look like Little Bo Peep. Clayton shoots his own lackeys, has a penchant for cramming pool cues in markedly unpleasant places, and oozes rage.

Where Shadowboxer falls short is in the unfolding of the story. There are no real surprises to speak of after the initial botched assassination attempt of Clayton’s pregnant wife and the plot twist that enables Clayton to discover the truth about what happened to his wife is contrived. Despite the somewhat contrived story, Shadowboxer manages to engage for the most part with complex characters and solid performances from all the key players.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars