“The Challenger” opens with Jaden Miller (Kent Moran, “Listen to Your Heat”) doing his morning run through the gritty streets of the Bronx. He then moves on to his job as an auto mechanic, where a client disparages his abilities as a mechanic. That night, dejected, he comes home to find an eviction notice on the door and spends that night sleeping in one of the cars in the garage where he works. Things are not working out for young 24-year-old Jaden. Until the rent is paid, her mother Jada (S. Epatha Merkerson, “Law & Order”) stays with Aunt Regina (Natalie Carter) and endures her constant interruptions. This is a hilarious scene, much to the delight of the audience.
While his overalls are being cleaned, Jaden meets Duane (Michael Clarke Duncan – “The Green Mile”) and discovers that he was once a legendary boxing coach. Later, Duane confesses that one of his fighters threw a match and Duane later had to back off by opening a laundry and a small boxing gym. Jaden learns that one of his co-workers in the garage makes money from side boxing in club fights and follows this route to get him and his mother back to their apartment. He approaches Duane to train him. Initially, Duane refuses, but knowing Jaden’s last name, he agrees to work with him.
What’s most intriguing about the training regiment is the focus on specific boxing techniques, things like foot placement, hip rotation, and how a punch is unrolled for maximum power. While fascinating, this focus on preparing for a fight takes the audience away from the inner struggles and conflicts that Jaden faces. Namely, his search for a way to support his mother, his search for a way to regain her respect after being expelled from a private school for fighting. There is also the fear of failure and not being good enough. Although these are presented in dialogue, the emotional consequences remain pending and are not fully developed. Jaden’s stoic expressions don’t give us those vulnerable moments that build deep emotional attachment to his dilemma. We care about the result, but not so much about the person.
The fight scenes are spectacular and if the Mayweather-Pacquiao match had been that good, people would be demanding a rematch. The championship match, in particular, was brilliantly crafted and choreographed. There’s suspense, compelling character arcs, and riveting reversals that take you to the brink of your seat excitement. The initial rounds were nearly complete and subsequent rounds were compressed into damaging hitting highlights. This segment of the film was shot in four hours, the time allotted by the arena officials. Therefore, the displayed exhaustion and fatigue are likely to be real.
There are some surprising twists to this story, which make it poignant and engaging. These are very well set up and foreshadowed without being too obvious. The acting is top notch across the board, including the supporting players. Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance in particular was rock solid and gave energy and direction to this crucial role. He had a backstory to tell and delivered it with great sensitivity and empathy. This was Michael’s last role, as he died at the age of 54 without ever seeing his final play.
The relationship between the mother and her required a delicate balance of protective love for a purpose. S. Epatha Merkerson and Kent Moran are marvelously delivered in this regard and each expresses their opposing points of view. What’s more, Kent Moran is to be commended for taking on such a physically demanding role while serving as a director and lead actor. Kent trained for 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 overconfidence and inflated ego set the challenge very well in dramatic terms and polarize our loyalties. The fact that he fights dirty adds to the dangers Jaden faces.
Production values portray the Bronx location as a brave underdog and it is Jaden’s dedication that gives its downtrodden residents hope. Giacomo Belletti’s camera work keeps us in the mix, skillfully moving us to provide questions and answers to what will happen next. Composer Pinar Toprak’s score provides an orderly dramatic energy that takes us through this emotional journey. The edition of Anthony Muzzatti and Kent Moran articulates very well the struggles, the way out of poverty to support his mother.
This film goes further and shows that if we fight for who we are, we can become winners. Film reviewed at the Hollywood Dances with Film Festival.
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 and Rebecca Slick; Art direction by Amy E. Bishop; Costume design by William Eng; Guy Guido makeup; Casting of Tiandra Gayle; Music by Pinar Toprak; Edited by Kent Moran and Anthony Muzzatti; Cinematography by Giacomo Belletti; The Director of the Second Unit, John-Michael Damato; Executive Producer Michael Clarke Duncan; Produced by Ellyette Eleni, Adam Hawkey and Kent Moran; Written and directed by Kent Moran; Production Company – Wishing Well Pictures, Inc .; HD, unrated, 95 minutes.