Three years after his untimely death, Michael Clarke Duncan’s final screen performance gets its streaming release this weekend. It’s great to see the man flex his acting muscles in something more substantial than a bit character part or as the Magical Black Man from The Green Mile, but this time it’s the rest of the picture that’s too slight for him.
Written, directed, and starring Kent Moran, The Challenger is a boxing movie. It has no aspirations to be anything else, cut and pasted as it is from the primordial template of Boxing Movies. It’s less a story than a collection of Boxing Movie tropes stacked up in order, starting with the scrappy young up-and-comer, Jaden Miller (Moran).
Jaden works in a garage in the Bronx. He sometimes sleeps in one of the customers’ cars, to be at work on time, until one of his buddies takes him in. See, he and his mom (S. Epatha Merkerson) were recently evicted, so you know how lean and hungry he is to make something of himself.
One of Jaden’s friends is trying to be a boxer. At one of his matches, Jaden meets an all-but-retired trainer, Duane (Duncan), who reluctantly agrees to take him on, despite saying he doesn’t train rookies. This lets Jaden explain his backstory: he got kicked out of private schools and lost scholarships for fighting, always “for the right reason”, and he always won. Somehow he had the academic wherewithal to get the scholarships in the first place, but not to finish a public high school, which landed him where he is today. Moran speaks from some sort of experience here, by the way: he grew up in Greenwich, Connectict and attended private prep schools himself.
This sets us up for the first training montage. Something like a third of the running time of the movie is made up of montages. A training montage is such a standard part of a Boxing Movie that having three or four can only make it better, right? These are scored, as they pretty much have to be, by hip-hop tracks featuring extremely on-the-nose boxing themes. Meanwhile, Duane intones generic boxing guidance, always coming back to his mantra: “Endurance. Strategy. Technique.”
So we get the run-up to the first fight, after which Jaden and his mom can move back into their own apartment. Then there’s the first string of wins, after which Jaden’s mom finds out he’s been fighting, and disapproves. Eventually he’s going to go up against The Champ, who’s such a great boxer that everyone is scared to get in the ring with him, and people are getting bored of the entire sport since they never get to see a title fight.
The one original idea here is a nameless Basic Cable Network deciding to juice interest in boxing again by making a reality television series about Jaden, this nobody challenger, and his run-up to the Big Fight. This, of course, allows even more explicit commentary from BCN announcers and media commentators to tell us exactly what’s going on in everybody’s heads for the second half of the movie. There’s no strategy or technique to this writing, and the only endurance is that demanded from the audience.
All this ham-fisted exposition could have been salvaged if the fighting scenes were great and exciting, but they’re only ever just okay. There are no real surprises — everything is telegraphed in Duane’s pep talks between rounds — and the action itself is cut fast, clearly exposing the seams between shots.
Duncan, Merkerson, and Moran do deliver solid performances, but they’re performances of stock types with little to set themselves apart from the exact same characters in pretty much every other boxing movie. The Challenger could be played as a comedic send-up if it contained a single joke. But as it stands, it’s just another plodding genre workout: Boxing Movie: the Movie.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.