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Punch and Duty

Optimists confident that Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams would simply sit down to tea last month at 10 Downing Street and toss eight centuries of strife into history's dustbin have another think coming. Last week, Irish nationalists inside notorious Maze Prison gunned down Billy Wright, a radical Protestant leader who admitted to killing a dozen Catholics in his day. Hours later, two Protestant assassins shot former IRA man Seamus Dillon to death outside a Belfast hotel.

So much for the latest fragile cease-fire in Northern Ireland. So much for an end to The Troubles.

Enter The Boxer, the latest foray by director Jim Sheridan, co-writer Terry George and actor Daniel Day-Lewis into the minefield of Irish politics. American audiences (non-Guinness-drinking American audiences, anyway) don't seem to like these films very much, but in view of the recent setbacks to Irish peace, this dark drama of contemporary Belfast--part Romeo and Juliet, part Rocky Umpteen--takes on added poignancy and punch. It's fitting that cinematographer Chris Menges has captured it in brooding tones of blue, gray and green. All the better to feel the chill.

For his mate Sheridan, the estimable Day-Lewis has previously portrayed the crippled Irish writer Christy Brown (My Left Foot) and a street punk unjustly imprisoned for a terrorist bombing (In the Name of the Father)--memorable performances both. This time he strips down to boxing trunks and sheer sinew to play one Danny Flynn, a once-promising middleweight who's just spent his salad days (and more) in a jail cell because of unspecified IRA activities. After fourteen years inside, sustained by what Mr. Joyce once called silence, exile and cunning, Danny returns to pocked, uneasy Belfast and finds it in worse shape than ever--raked by hatred, paranoid in its tribal loyalties, unpredictably violent. In his pale prison face we see bewilderment; in his rolling fighter's gait, wariness. When he climbs the stairs again to the burned-out, boarded-up flat that was home, his eyes empty out.

All Danny Flynn knows--all any movie fighter from Garfield to Stallone has ever known--is that pool of light between the ropes, and it is there that he resolves to return. At age 32. "Archie Moore fought for the title at 42," he reckons. What he doesn't quite reckon is the complex moral weight he'll have to carry in the neighborhood. A pacifist in Everlast gloves now, Danny revives the nonsectarian boxing club where once he shone. It is called Holy Family, of course, and in it he finds himself forging a separate peace and rekindling self-respect among the kids. As in fight-game movies of old, we see poor boys rising into their pride, tough and imperfect. As in civil-war movies new and old, we see putative brothers spilling each others' blood. The moment when the ring announcer intones the names of the dead--Holy Family boys lost at 21 or 17 or 14 to malevolence in the streets--is all tremor and heartbreak.

Still the cynics sneer. "Flynn should get the Nobel Peace Prize for boxing," one cracks.

What chance for Danny? Outwardly, Day-Lewis, two years in the gym with speed bag, jump rope and ex-featherweight champ Barry McGuigan, has taken on the actual brute, feline aspect of a prizefighter (he can also put combinations together for real), but it's his inside we're supposed to be looking at--the stone-jawed resolve, the edgy disillusionment with bomb-throwers, the dangerous bond to Maggie (Breaking the Waves' Emily Watson), the girl he left behind in his vanished adolescence, now married to an imprisoned revolutionist and bound by the IRA's strict code of martyr-wife conduct. Like clockwork, Maggie has an adolescent son, Liam (Ciaran Fitzgerald), who's tossed on the storms of his time and place.

Faced with the tug of genres, Sheridan and co-writer George (director of the rather more doctrinaire Some Mother's Son) can't help themselves. They throw in ancient fight-movie types like the boozy old trainer (Ken Stott) who's renewed through his scrapper's prowess and the agents of corruption, who in this charged setting must be political and criminal. We needn't look further than a manipulative police captain or conniving Harry (Gerard McSorley), Danny's rigid IRA handler of old, still keen to keep a hook in him.

What chance for Danny? The Boxer contains three roiling, smoky fights, each as feral and real as anything the inspirational Scorsese conjured up in Raging Bull. One concludes, inevitably, with a bombing out in the street. The last could be the strangest and most telling episode in fight-movie history. In this test of innards, the exiled Danny battles a Nigerian opponent before a silent black-tie crowd in an alien London ballroom, the bout decorated with champagne toasts to the queen and the inescapable sense that both men are bought-and-paid-for meat. This is not Rocky Balboa fighting Apollo Creed for the heart of the little guy. These are men chained by a common oppressor even as they throw jagged uppercuts.

Somehow the forbidden love story (Maggie's Da is an IRA chieftain, wouldn't you know?) doesn't quite measure up to the vision of a man fighting for the impossible: quiet in the streets. "You still have my soul," the fighter admits to his Maggie, the unhappy wife of another man. But do we believe that? If there's a weakness here, it's our sneaking suspicion, all along, that Danny's soul belongs not to Maggie but to the ring, and to his tormented country's history. In the end, there's just not enough of him to go around.

The Boxer.
Screenplay by Jim Sheridan and Terry George. Directed by Jim Sheridan. With Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ken Stott.

 
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