Victor Young Perez: Film Review

"Victor Young Perez"
"Rocky" meets "Schindler’s List" in this vapid historical biopic.

Real-life boxer Brahim Asloum portrays the legendary Tunisian Jewish Flyweight Champion, whose career was cut short by the horrors of World War II.

The tragic fate of boxer Victor “Young” Perez -- who, as a Tunisian Jew, fought his way from immigrant underdog to World Flyweight Champion in the early 1930’s, only to be deported to Auschwitz and ultimately killed -- is brought to the screen in French producer-showrunner Jacques Ouaniche’s feature debut. Yet despite what could be considered honorable intentions on the part of cast and crew, this tone deaf, ham-fisted historical biopic winds up turning the Holocaust into a high school-level melodrama, and one man’s harrowing life into (quite literally) a bad movie.

Hardly salvaged by real-life prizefighter Brahim Asloum’s fiery portrayal of the film’s titular slugger, this modestly budgeted effort should see small returns for its mid-November local release. Overseas action will be limited to Jewish-themed festivals, as well as scattered art houses catering to crowds who like their period pieces both underdeveloped and overblown.

Photos: Benedict Cumberbatch: Exclusive Portraits of 'The Fifth Estate's' Leading Man

Beginning with an Auschwitz-set boxing match that provides a hook for the next hour, the story flashbacks to Tunis in the 1920’s, where Victor Perez (Asloum) becomes a last minute fight replacement for his brother, Benjamin (Steve Suissa). With a super-fast delivery and uncanny ability to dodge his opponent’s blows, the “Young” Perez reveals he’s got the stuff of a pro, and is quickly taken under the wing of a cigar-chomping manager (Patrick Bouchitey), who whisks the two siblings away to Paris.

Cue up lots of boilerplate jazz and sepia-toned shots of Notre-Dame, as Perez overcomes racism and anti-Semitism (“I’m both a towelhead and a kyke,” he boasts at one point), jabbing his way to the 1931 Flyweight championship, where he defeated the American Frankie Genaro in a 2nd round knockout. Filmed in a highly standard manner that lacks any real suspense, the boxing scenes are at best a showcase for Asloum’s impressive ring skills (he won a gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics), yet feel altogether underwhelming considering they’re supposed to be the centerpieces of the movie.

As the textbook dictates, Perez’s rise is soon followed by a fall at the hands of a femme fatale, Mireille (Isabelle Orsini), whose loose morals and ascent to stardom drive the fighter nuts, pushing him away from both his bro and boxing career. Granted, not everyone has Joe Pesci and a bucket of ice to calm the situation, but the lovers’ squabbles are laughably bad, with Orsini thrown lots of cringe-worthy lines and Asloum scowling away in his tweed suit -- until the war breaks out and Perez lets his rage get the better of him, punching out an S.S. officer who’s dating his gal!

Whether this actually happened is uncertain -- the film was “freely inspired by a true story” -- but Victor Young Perez seems so consistently inauthentic about its setting and subject matter, it makes Inglourious Basterds look like a Claude Lanzmann movie in comparison. And things get much worse once the boxer is deported, landing in the infamous concentration and extermination camp, whose prisoners look like they’ve all been caked in zombie make-up, and whose evil overloads offer up some of the lamest depictions of Nazis ever seen on screen.

It’s one thing to dramatize history to tell a good story; it’s another to turn it into a Telenovela, and Ouaniche -- who produced Abdellatif Kechiche’s Games of Love and Chance and created the Canal + TV series Maison close -- often overdoes things to the point of ridicule. And while many filmmakers would find tragedy in the simple fact that Perez wound up in a death camp, the director piles on the schmaltz here in one ill-advised scene after another, leading to a gruesome, final brawl with a beefy German that turns the horrors of Auschwitz into a spectacle worthy of Rocky IV.

Outside the mediocre performances, production values are passable, with DP Pierre-Yves Bastard (JCVD) desaturating colors in the war-time sequences and heating them up in the 30’s-set flashbacks. The score by Didier Lockwood (The Rain Children) is another case of overkill.


Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 (in France)

Production companies: Noe Productions Inc., Mazel Productions, France 3 Cinema, Transfax Film Productions Ltd.

Cast: Brahim Asloum, Steve Suissa, Isabelle Orsini, Patrick Bouchitey

Director: Jacques Ouaniche

Screenwriters: Yoni Darmon, Jacques Ouaniche, freely inspired by a true story

Producers: Nelly Kafsky, Jacques Ouaniche

Executive producers: Jean-Dominique Chouchan, Gianfranco Piertantoni, Gianni Sarago, Marek Rozenbaum, Thomas Alfandari, James Daly, Nick Munday

Director of photography: Pierre-Yves Bastard

Production designer: Ariel Glazer, Laure Balzan Sorin, Boriana Mincheva

Costume designer: Edith Vesperini

Music: Didier Lockwood

Editor: Emmanuelle Mimran

Sales agent: Pictures Tree International GmBH

No rating, 110 minutes