“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 of Michael Clarke Duncan in particular was rock solid and gave energy and direction to this crucial role. He had a back-story to tell and he delivered it with great sensitivity and empathy. This was Michael’s last role, as he died at the age of 54 never seeing his final work.
The relationship between mother and son required a delicate balance of protective love versus determined purpose. S. Epatha Merkerson and Kent Moran beautifully deliver on this aspect with each expressing their opposing views. What’s more, Kent Moran is to be commended for taking on such a physically demanding role while serving as both director and lead actor. Kent trained six months at Manny Pacquiao’s gym in Venice, California preparing for his role.
Another actor who made this a worthy movie is Justin Hartley, Jaden’s opponent in the championship fight. His over confidence and inflated ego nicely set up the challenge in dramatic terms and polarizes our allegiances. The fact that he fights dirty adds to the dangers Jaden faces.
Production values portray the Bronx location as a gritty underdog and it’s Jaden’s dedication that gives its downtrodden residents hope. Camera work by Giacomo Belletti keeps us in the mix, moving skillfully to provide both questions and answers to what’s going to happen next. Composer Pinar Toprak’s score neatly provides the dramatic energy that leads us through this emotional journey. The editing by Anthony Muzzatti and Kent Moran nicely articulates the struggles, the climb out of poverty to provide for his mother.
This film goes the distance and shows that if we fight for who we are, we can become winners. Film reviewed at the Dances with Film Festival, Hollywood.
CREDITS: “The Challenger” stars Kent Moran, Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Justin Hartly, Frank Watson, Stan Carp, and Ernie Sabella. Production Design by Kay Lee & Rebecca Slick; Art Direction by Amy E. Bishop; Costume Design by William Eng; Makeup by Guy Guido; Casting by Tiandra Gayle; Music by Pinar Toprak; Edited by Kent Moran & Anthony Muzzatti; Cinematography by Giacomo Belletti; Second Unit Director John-Michael Damato; Executive Producer Michael Clarke Duncan; Produce by Ellyette Eleni, Adam Hawkey, & Kent Moran; Written and Directed by Kent Moran; Production Company – Wishing Well Pictures, Inc.; HD, Unrated, 95 Minutes.