- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

Cuba Gooding Jr.’s path from Oscar winner to punch line must have shattered a few land-speed records.

Signing up for a May-December interracial romance involving a hit woman and her stepson took guts.

Desperate careers call for desperate measures, and the new “Shadowboxer” pays off for Mr. Gooding. The actor’s natural buoyancy is buried beneath an eerie calm in the role of a killer wrestling with his past.

OK, Cuba, we forgive you for “Boat Trip.”

First-time director Lee Daniels makes his rigorously flawed characters human enough to drag us along with the unnerving subject matter.

The vehicle feels as if its wheels are about to snap off at times, but when the film’s key relationships take root, the story rights itself. “Shadowboxer” ultimately is a family saga, albeit one that’s a thousand miles away from any Norman Rockwell painting.

Killer for hire Mikey (Mr. Gooding) is trying to make the final days of his fellow assassin and stepmother, Rose (Helen Mirren), a little more tolerable. She has terminal cancer, the kind that lingers just long enough for all the necessary plot pieces to fall into place.

Someone has to pay the bills, though, so the two embark on one last mission. They set out to kill the wife of a vicious crime lord named Clayton (Stephen Dorff) who has had enough of married life.

Why the baby-faced Mr. Dorff keeps getting cast as baddies is anyone’s guess.

Rose can’t pull the trigger when she discovers her target (Vanessa Ferlito) is very pregnant.

Instead of shooting her, Rose takes her home and becomes a surrogate parent to both the woman and her child.

Happens all the time, we’re sure.

Mikey isn’t thrilled by any of this. He knows if Clayton learns his wife is still alive they all could be dead. Also, Mikey would rather have Rose all to himself. The two are lovers, and their romantic interludes could inspire giggles in audiences not used to seeing older women with much younger men.

Having Miss Mirren use a bedpost like a stripper’s pole doesn’t help matters.

To be fair, few older actresses can still trade on their looks, although Miss Mirren is credible both as a paramour and matriarch of the bizarre family unit.

Mikey does precisely what Rose wishes, to honor and cherish her while he still has the opportunity.

Time passes, and the quartet establish the odd but recognizable rhythms of a nuclear family, but how long can they keep up appearances?

Audiences could go cross-eyed looking through the holes scattered through “Shadowboxer,” but Mr. Daniels continually finds ways to distract us. He’s a quick study on entering scenes in a provocative fashion. One minute we’re peering into a house through a side window, the next a character’s entrance is delayed for maximum impact.

Mr. Daniels clearly relishes uncomfortable subject matter, having previously produced “The Woodsman” and “Monster’s Ball.”

Audiences will have to share his tastes to catch Mr. Gooding’s return to respectability.

**1/2

WHAT: “Shadowboxer”

RATING: R (Disturbing themes, violence, sexual situations, nudity and adult language)

CREDITS: Directed by Lee Daniels. Written by William Lipz.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

WEB SITE: www.shadowboxerthefilm.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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