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Review: 'Boxer' is a knockout 'Romeo and Juliet' in Belfast

The Boxer January 2, 1998
Web posted at: 6:01 p.m. EST (2301 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- It is said that a writer should write about what he or she knows. Irish director James Sheridan certainly takes that advice to heart in "The Boxer." The question is, will American audiences want to take the trip?

Sheridan's first trip to the sorry situation in Northern Ireland was in 1993 with "In The Name Of The Father" (also starring Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis), which earned seven Oscar nominations but won zip. Then he took another stab at the subject in 1996 by co-writing "Some Mother's Son," which was largely ignored.

This is the third collaboration between Sheridan and Day-Lewis. Their past efforts, "My Left Foot" and the previously mentioned "In The Name Of The Father," were based on true stories. "The Boxer" is totally fictional but covers similar ground: One man, insurmountable odds, and the eventual triumph of spirit.

Due probably to the fact that practice makes perfect, "The Boxer" is the best of the lot. Beautifully acted, with a taut script, and expertly directed, "The Boxer" hits all the right notes.

When I first heard about this film I found it hard to get excited about another movie dealing with "the Troubles" of Northern Ireland. But once my butt was in the seat I was there for the ride.

Day-Lewis and Emily Watson ("Breaking The Waves") are Danny and Maggie, teen-age lovers who are separated when Danny is imprisoned for IRA violence. She enters a loveless marriage, has a son, and her husband is then ALSO sent to jail. When Danny is released 14 years later, their love is rekindled.

Tired of random violence, Danny turns to boxing, which has rules and structure, and he tries to use the sport of boxing as a way to bring Catholics and Protestants together. But peace is hard to find inside and outside the ring. His love for Maggie is forbidden by blood, tribe and tradition since she is a prisoner's wife.

Day-Lewis is famous for becoming totally involved in his characters and in typical fashion he trained as a boxer for four years to achieve a chilling amount of realism in the ring.

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It may seem odd to use a violent sport such as boxing as a way to bring peace in Northern Ireland, but it works. Before the current unrest, boxing clubs in Ireland were a place that Catholics and Protestants could come together and enjoy the same sport. Danny tries single-handedly to bring this sense of community back.

When everything else is going crazy around you, and you never know if you'll be blown to smithereens, I guess it helps to beat the hell out of someone in a nice structured atmosphere with fresh towels on hand to mop up the blood and the mucous.

But above all "The Boxer" is a poignant love story. At times in Hollywood movies, the two actors who are supposedly in love look like they're on a blind date from hell with all the sizzle of a two-dollar steak. But with Watson and Day-Lewis you can almost feel the heat, and their situation never feels contrived or artificial.

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As the wife of a prisoner -- a prisoner of war, according to the IRA -- Maggie's every move is watched and her love for Danny is viewed as treason. Watson, as Maggie, is really at the heart of the drama. Not only a prisoner's wife, she is also the daughter of an IRA leader, and the mother of a budding terrorist in training. It finally falls to her to break the chain of violence that has trapped her family for years.

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"The Boxer" is "Romeo and Juliet" in Belfast and the drama is derived from all the forces trying to keep Maggie and Danny apart. Day-Lewis delivers a smoldering performance and Watson also delivers as a woman torn between duty and love.

In his previous films about the conflict in Northern Ireland, Sheridan has tackled the subject on a grander scale and with broader strokes.

But "The Boxer" approaches the whole thing on a more intimate level. You can wave flags and beat your chest until you're blue in the face, you can confront violence with more violence, more death, more destruction, but at the end of the day, you have nothing if you can't live in peace with the one you love.

Of course, if that doesn't float your boat, it can't hurt (especially with female audiences) that "The Boxer" is another chance for Day-Lewis to take off his shirt and confirm his chunk-a-hunk status. Hey, it worked in "The Last of the Mohicans."

Sadly, in the holiday rush, I'm pretty sure "The Boxer" will get lost in the shuffle, especially in America where the combination of low inflation, low unemployment and a humming economy has left most people too happy and too self-involved to really care about politics in Washington, let alone in Northern Ireland.

Be that as it may, on my scale of "Wait for the video," "Only go if somebody else pays," "Go at some point" or "Run to the theater," "The Boxer" is a "Run!"

"The Boxer" is rated "R" due to violence and profanity.


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