Whenever there’s a new drama with Academy Award-nominated actors debasing themselves to play homeless, lowly or generally impoverished people, you come with certain preset expectations. Something almost along the lines of 30 Rock‘s Hard to Watch: Based on the Novel “Stone Cold Bummer” by Manipulate. You expect the worst, but you can’t help it. You’ve been burnt too many times before.
Thankfully and surprisingly, however, Cardboard Boxer, producer Knate Lee’s directorial debut, is not quite that. Sure, it’s cliched, manipulative and kinda indulgent, but it’s not completely awful. In fact, there’s a powerful film in here, just waiting to come out. And it sometimes does. But either through the filmmaker’s inexperience or his lack of narrative constraint, Lee only earns part of his unexpected potential. Knowing what he could have achieved, in spite of the odds, ultimately makes the uneven final product all the more disappointing.
Thomas Haden Church is among the Oscar-nominated actors in question here. He plays Willie, a deeply insecure, mentally-impaired, hard-knocked bum who eats trash burgers and sleeps in a cardboard box in the alley to stay alive. He’s a gentle soul, with the worldview of a child, but his broad shoulders, hulking figure and generally tough exterior makes him look like an imposing giant. But Willie holds great empathy, and he’s also deeply lonely, which causes him to grow attached to a discarded young girl’s damaged diary. His one-sided conversations with the young writer later inspires him to learn cursive and grow more outgoing in the homeless community.
That’s also what inspires Willie’s friendship with Pinky (Boyd Holbrook), a grizzled, wheelchair-bound war veteran amputee. Imagine someone along the lines of Forrest Gump‘s Lieutenant Dan, particularly in the second half and without the restored faith in the last act. Through different circumstances, they eventually earn each other’s trust and use their individual skills to benefit the other’s life situation.
Not long before this, however, Willy gets acquainted with J.J. (The Purge‘s Rhys Wakefield), a rich punk who — along with his other yuppie pals — exploits Willie and other homeless men in the area into hastily taped bare-knuckled fights to make a quick 50 bucks. As someone blissfully unaware of his own strength, Willie excels in the makeshift ring, soon earning himself the moniker “Cardboard Boxer” (hence, the film’s title). Through the all-watching eye of cab driver Pope (Terrence Howard, mostly underused), however, our bum with a heart of gold slowly learns how deceitful his so-called “friends” can truly be.
Cardboard Boxer is at its best when it focuses on its impressively subdued performances. Church’s lumbering, quietly contemplative titular role is often richly introspective, no matter how trite some of Lee’s flat dialogue can be, and Howard often impresses in his few key scenes. But Holbrook is the ultimate standpoint. What might’ve been a pandering, self-important supporting turn elsewhere quickly becomes a brutally honest character under his care, the kind of performance that proves Holbrook as a character actor worth following. His portrayal of Pinky is arguably what makes Lee’s film worth watching, more than anything else.
Unfortunately, their hard work is often clouded by Lee’s incessant need to ring out as much pathos as possible, especially towards the final 20 or so minutes. It’s never as dishonest as it potentially could have been, yet it never feels as true as it should’ve been. Particularly with the performances at the center. There’s some rich nuance here, waiting to strike, but it’s often left outside the ring.
Cardboard Boxer isn’t meant to be subtle or subversive. That’s fine. It doesn’t need to be. But it does need to feel sincere or at least genuine, and that’s only occasionally the case with Lee’s underwhelming debut. Even its most compassionate moments seem marginally disingenuous. Despite the film’s intimacy and compassionate character work, along with some of its impressive cinematography by Peter Holland, the punches are often pulled. And that’s truly a shame, because this contender could’ve been a heavyweight.
Cardboard Boxer is an underdog fighter that, despite its considerate and often good performances, often finds its punches pulled. It's a shame, too, because it could've been a knockout.