'The Challenger': Film Review

Courtesy of Montreal Film Festival
"Rocky" it ain't.

Kent Moran writes, directs and stars as an out-of-nowhere boxing sensation whose trainer is the late Michael Clarke Duncan.

Kent Moran tries to one-up the Italian Stallion in The Challenger, a feature debut about an underdog boxer in which he not only writes and stars but directs. Unfortunately, nerve is just about all this upstart has to offer: Constructed of sweat-stained cliches and dramatically undercharged, it struggles even to deliver in terms of ringside action footage. The one thing in its corner is Michael Clarke Duncan, who shot the picture shortly before his death in 2012. The swan song will attract some attention from Duncan's fans, but not enough to keep the film in theaters for long before it becomes a footnote in his filmography.

Though the script is no actor's dream, Duncan is well cast as Duane, a gym owner who gave up training fighters years ago (as a result of a fight-throwing scandal we don't believe for a second). His disgrace must not pain him much, because Duane comes out of retirement with next to no convincing from Jaden (Moran), a kid who has never boxed and has done nothing to impress anyone. "Look, I'm not good at many things, Mr. Taylor," Jaden admits, "but I can do this." Well, there you go.

Cue a training scene or two (punch from your hips, kid), a "you're not giving it your all" motivational ultimatum, and a first bout in which the neophyte triumphs. This is the last fight we'll see for a while, as Moran relies almost exclusively on bap-bap-bap montage to convey the winning streak and media attention surrounding the newly christened "Bronx Boy." Soon a TV producer has sold a reality show, The Challenger, that will follow him to the world light heavyweight championship.

"People are just tired — they need something to believe in again," the producer tells her boss. And if any of the people in the theater believe this story, God bless 'em. Moran chooses not to give Jaden a love interest, preferring to make him a devoted son who has entered the ring to keep his single mom (S. Epatha Merkerson) from being evicted, and who, when he's ready to give up, has to take that title bout to pay for — wait for it — the surgery she suddenly needs.

As hokey as every line of the screenplay is, the pic looks and sounds like a respectable feature, though Moran and DP Giacomo Belletti leave much to be desired when trying to choreograph two boxers and a camera. A behind-the-scenes clip during the credits looks like the usual blooper reel, but turns out to be Duncan breaking the fourth wall to tell us that Moran is "one of the most innovative" filmmakers he has worked with. Having seen the final product, we will certainly disagree, but it's an endearing moment of generosity from the late actor.

 

Production company: Wishing Well Pictures

Cast: Kent Moran, Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Justin Hartley

Director-Screenwriter: Kent Moran

Producers: Kent Moran, Adam Hawkey, Ellyette Eleni

Executive producers: Frank Carbone, Charles Cook, Robert Derose, Susan Derose

Director of photography: Giacomo Belleti

Production designer: Kay Lee

Costume designers: William Eng, Tiffany Jordan

Editors: Kent Moran, Anthony Muzzatti

Music: Pinar Toprak

Casting director: Tiandra Gayle

PG-13, 94 minutes

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