DirLee Daniels. US. 2005. 93mins.

LeeDaniels made history as the first stand-alone black producer of anOscar-winning film, when Halle Berry lifted the Best Actress prize for Monster'sBall in 2002. It's a shame then that the talented Daniels chose Shadowboxerfor his directorial debut: it's doubtful whether even the most experiencedauteur could have made a decent film out of this contrived hitman yarn.

NeitherHelen Mirren nor Cuba Gooding Jr can save the story from spiralling intoabsurdity, and the incoherent visual tone of this garish HD film, which movesfrom blaxploitation parody to the kitsch live-action equivalent of a greetingcard, does nothing to keep the lid on the audience's growing restlessness.

Thisis going to be a hard sell even on the domestic front, as the shoot-'em-upyouth market that might be attracted to the film's hard and nasty side will beturned off by its lurches into sentimentality. Although the cast will attractsome domestic theatrical action in the first couple of weekends, Shadowboxerhas a video/DVD homing instinct.

However,the film generated a more positive reaction at San Sebastian - where it playedafter Toronto - from paying locals than from the Anglo-Saxon press corps: maybethis is one film where subtitles and/or dubbing can actually improve itschances. But it falls awkwardly between the arthouse and the multiplex market,and even outside of the States it is unlikely to pack a punch. To adapt Ali, Shadowboxerstings like a butterfly and floats like a bee.

Thepremise sets the bar high. Take Rose (Helen Mirren), an elegant older woman,who is dying (slowly, very slowly) of cancer, and ask the audience to believethat she is also a ruthless professional assassin. Then give her a hunky blackstepson, Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr), who is her partner in elimination - and maketheir relationship incestuous.

Finally,around 10 minutes in, let the melancholic Rose - whose cold-blooded crueltynever really registers with us - have a sudden change of heart, when she seesthat Vickie (Ferlito), the woman she has been sent to rub out, is so extremelypregnant that her waters break as soon as Rose levels the gun at her. Then movethe three of them, plus junior, into a kooky suburban menage a trois

Onecould play this material for laughs - and sometimes the director does, as whenhe shows Mikey hoovering in an apron between hitman assignments. But Danielsalso tries out melodrama, grotesque satire, and noirish tragedy without everreally settling on one mood. Gross tonal shifts of this kind should be left todirectors like Park Chan-wook - and even he sometimes misjudges.

Garishly-litback story flashbacks are dragged in repeatedly to explain why Rose and Mikeybecame lovers and killers, and to lend the story a psychologicalcause-and-effect coherence: but the explanations are trite. The gaps in thescript's emotional structure are plugged with flashy scraps.

There'ssome unpleasant, in-your-face violence a la Pulp Fiction. There's anobtrusive soundtrack that veers from tango to gangsta rap. And there are aseries of oddball characters, including a cheesy doctor-for-hire played byJoseph Gordon-Levitt, and Vickie's jive-talking best friend Neisha - adramatically pointless but nevertheless tasty cameo by R&B star Macy Graywhich turns out to be one of the film's few high points.

Itdoesn't help that Mirren's accent wobbles back to English at a number ofpoints; and although Gooding maintains his customary dignity and poise, this isnot enough to make his character credible.

Lee Daniels Entertainment

Lee Daniels Entertainment

Dawn Lenfest
Tucker Tooley

Lee Daniels

Will Rokos

M David Mullen

Steven Saklad

William Chang
Brian Kates

Mario Grigorov

Helen Mirren
Cuba Gooding Jr
Stephen Dorff
Vanessa Ferlito
Macy Gray
Joseph Gordon-Levitt