“The Challenger” opens with Jaden Miller (Kent Moran, “Listen to Your Heat”) doing his early morning run through the gritty streets of the Bronx. Then cuts to his job as an auto mechanic where a female customer belittles his capabilities as mechanic. That night, dejected he arrives home to find an eviction notice on the door and spends that night sleeping in one of the cars at the garage where he works. Things are not working out for young 24-year old Jaden. Until the rent is paid, his mother Jada (S. Epatha Merkerson, “Law & Order”) is staying at Aunt Regina (Natalie Carter) and putting up with her constant interruptions. This is a hilarious scene, much to the delight of the audience.
While getting his work coveralls cleaned, Jaden meets up with Duane (Michael Clarke Duncan – “The Green Mile”) and learns he was once a legendary boxing trainer. Later, Duane confesses that one of his fighters threw a match and Duane had to backed away later opening a Laundromat and a small boxing gym. Jaden learns that one of his fellow workers at the garage makes money on the side boxing in club fights and pursues this avenue to get his mother and him back into their apartment. He approaches Duane to train him. Initially, Duane refuses, but on learning Jaden last name, he consents to work with him.
What is most intriguing about the training regiment is the focus on specific boxing techniques, things such as the placement of the feet, the rotation of the hips, and how a punch is uncoiled for maximum power. While fascinating, this focus on preparation for a fight leads the audience away from the inner struggles and conflicts Jaden faces. Namely, his finding a way to support his mom, finding a way to regain her respect after being kicked out of a private school for fighting. There is also the fear of failure and not being good enough. While these are presented in dialogue, the emotional consequences is left hanging and not fully developed. Jaden’s stoic expressions do not give us those vulnerable moments that build a deep emotional attachment to his dilemma. We care about the outcome, but not so much about the person.
The fight scenes are spectacular and if the Mayweather-Pacquiao match had been this good, people would be demanding a rematch. The championship match, in particular, was brilliantly crafted and choreographed. There is suspense, compelling character arcs and riveting reversals leading to an edge of your seat excitement. The initial rounds were almost full length and the succeeding rounds compressed into highlights of damaging blows. This segment of the film was shot in four hours, the time allotted by arena officials. Thus the exhaustion and fatigue exhibited are likely real.
There are some amazing twists in this story, which makes it both poignant and appealing. These are nicely set up and foreshadowed without being overly obvious. The acting is first-rate across the board including supporting players. The performance …