'Cardboard Boxer': Film Review

Cardboard Boxer - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment
Thomas Haden Church delivers a haunting performance in this otherwise familiar-feeling drama.

Thomas Haden Church plays a homeless man induced into "bum fighting" in Knate Lee's indie drama.

You'll find it harder to ignore the next homeless person you pass on the sidewalk after seeing Knate Lee's drama about a denizen of L.A.'s the "Nickel." It's not because Cardboard Boxer is a particularly deep film, but rather because its central character is so hauntingly lost and forlorn. Delivering a fully committed, moving performance, Thomas Haden Church makes you pay attention to a figure you would otherwise pass by without a second thought.

The title would seem to indicate that the film will be an exploitative drama revolving around the despicable trend of "bum fighting." And that is indeed a plot element, with the pathetic Willie induced to participate in filmed street brawls for the princely sum of $50, at the behest of a young preppie (Rhys Wakefield) who pretends to be his friend.

But Cardboard Boxer is really more of a character study that poignantly depicts Willie's existential despair and physical struggles. He partly rediscovers his humanity when he finds the charred manuscript of the diary of an unknown 9-year-old girl. But even that event is problematic because he cannot read her handwriting.

"Do you know cursive?" Willie plaintively asks everyone with whom he comes into contact. Eventually he does manage to read some of her entries, writing replies that he delivers in the form of paper airplanes thrown from a nearby roof.

Speaking in a slurred monotone that could convey mental illness, Willie is a forlorn figure indeed, with his sole expressed wish being, "I don't want to be alone when I die." In one of the film's most moving scenes, he tries to enlist at a military recruiting center, only to be told that he's too old. Much to the officer's horror, Willie then volunteers to become a "human shield."  

Visiting his father's grave, Willie says, "I'll see you soon," and you fully believe him. Meanwhile, he strikes up a friendship with a legless Iraqi war vet (Boyd Holbrook) with whom he shares the contents of the diary, and attracts the attention of a cabdriver (Terrence Howard, compelling in an underutilized role), who takes enough pity on him to give him a blanket.

Cardboard Boxer doesn't really bring anything new to its sadly familiar subject matter. But it proves touching nonetheless, if only for Church's glazed, despairing facial expressions that indicate, more effectively than any dialogue, just how far his character has fallen.

Production: Night & Day Pictures
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Thomas Haden Church, Terrence Howard, Boyd Holbrook, Rhys Wakefield, Macy Gray
Director/screenwriter: Knate Lee
Producers: Mike Witherill, Michael Roiff
Executive producers: Josh Boone, Jill Killington, Thomas Haden Church, Brigitte Mueller, LeAnn Goff, Joe Mundo
Director of photography: Peter A. Holland
Production designer: Kathrin Eder
Costume designer: Samantha Kuester
Editor: Jeff Seibenick
Composer: Jess Stroup
Casting: Sunday Boling, Meg Mormin

Not rated, 88 minutes