Courtesy Photo
Wednesday, December 31, 1997 (NY/LA)
Friday, January 9, 1998 (Wider)
Rated: R

Written & directed by Jim Sheridan

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Brain Cox, Ken Stott & Gerald McSorley

"The Boxer"

Stop me if you've heard this one: Jim Sheridan directs Daniel Day-Lewis in a passionate, war-weary political drama revolving around a jailed IRA soldier and The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

"In the Name of the Father?" No, this one's called "The Boxer," and it is largely a leaden retread of the same material Sheridan plugged away at in "Father" and 1996's "Some Mother's Son" (this guy has a big ax to grind).

The allegory of a promising bruiser who has emerged from 14 years in prison, the film paints a picture of the importance of loyalty within the Irish Republican Army, told through the boxer's indifference and his ill-advised rekindling of a romance with an old lover, now the wife of an IRA prisoner.

It's a pretty pedestrian tale, frankly -- even with all of Sheridan's ardent dedication -- and with any other actor in the lead role "The Boxer" would be dismissable as a sign of Sheridan's inability to give up his pet genre and move on.

But Daniel Day-Lewis gives an extraordinary performance that floats the film. Wholly submerging the audience in his character, he and his equally talented co-star Emily Watson turn this prosaic story into an emotionally vivid illustration of the personal toll terrorism can take on families and lovers.

Day-Lewis, who trained two years for the role of Danny Flynn, has the physique and manner of a middleweight champ. His disorienting fight scenes smack of painful reality and he brings a simmering vehemence to this former terrorist who has seen the best years of his life slip away behind prison walls.

Upon his release, he returns to his barb-fenced tenement to the whispers of neighbors. Having taken the rap for a superior in the IRA and lost his lover when he was put away, Danny has turned inward and barely acknowledged those welcoming him home.

He re-opens a gym in the local church and tries to make some peace come of his life by welcoming both Cathoics and Protestants, drawing the ire of his former comrades. But when he can't hide his feelings for Maggie (Watson), now the wife of a prisoner, he steps over a treasonous line and puts his life in danger.

The film is full of the powerful symbolism. Numerous helicopter shots imply the constant but detached presence of the British military. The film's mood is reflected in the overcast skies and gray, faded tint of every frame. And when the fragile tranquillity of the slum is torn by terrorist bombings, it is a brief but graphic display of devastation and death.

But "The Boxer" would be only a strongly-directed special interest film if it wasn't for the emotional intensity provided by Day-Lewis and Watson.

The remarkable unknown who emerged last year in Lars VonTrier's "Breaking the Waves," Watson plays Maggie with a quiet, conflicted reluctance. The faithful wife of a prisoner is a position of honor in the community, and she has always been loyal to her father, an IRA negotiator, and her young son, who sees Danny as a threat. But her long-buried feelings for Danny overwhelm her when she sees the spark of life return to his eyes in her company.

Danny tries hard to stay out of the way of the IRA and out of Maggie's life, but when he sees her, a dam breaks within him.

Day-Lewis and Watson share simple embraces that have the punch of a sensual love scene, and their fervor overcomes the movie's skipping record message and some uninspired dialogue. (In one scene Maggie reads out loud a letter to Danny, and all I could think was "You had to write that down?")

If an indifferent "ho hum" is the most the conflict in Northern Ireland inspires in you, "The Boxer" may not be your movie. But no one tells this kind of story better than Jim Sheridan, even if it is for the third time, and the performances of Day-Lewis and Watson are inspiring.

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