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Movie Review – "The Challenger" – Fight for Who You Are
“The Challenger” opens with Jaden Miller (Kent Moran, “Listen to Your Heat”) doing his morning run through the gritty streets of the Bronx. Then cuts his auto mechanic job where a client belittles his mechanic abilities. That night, discouraged, he returns home to find an eviction notice on the door and spends the night sleeping in one of the cars in the garage where he works. Things aren’t working out for 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. It’s a hilarious scene, much to the delight of the audience.
While having his work suit cleaned, Jaden meets Duane (Michael Clarke Duncan – “The Green Mile”) and learns that he was once a legendary boxing trainer. Later, Duane confesses that one of his fighters threw a match and Duane had to back out later to open a laundromat and a small boxing gym. Jaden learns that a colleague of his at the garage makes money boxing in club fights and pursues this avenue to get him and his mother back to their apartment. He approaches Duane to train him. Duane initially refuses, but upon learning 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 rolled. for maximum power. While fascinating, this emphasis on preparing for a fight takes the audience away from the inner struggles and conflicts that Jaden faces. Namely, he finds a way to support his mother, finds a way to earn back her respect after being kicked out of a private school for getting into a fight. There is also the fear of failure and of not being good enough. Although these are presented in dialogue, the emotional consequences are left hanging and not fully developed. Jaden’s stoic expressions don’t give us those vulnerable moments that create a 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 this good, people would be demanding a rematch. The championship game, in particular, was brilliantly designed and choreographed. There’s suspense, compelling character arcs, and gripping reversals leading to an edge of your seat excitement. The initial rounds were nearly full and the following rounds compressed into culminations 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 amazing twists and turns in this story, which makes it both poignant and engaging. These are well put together 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 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 without ever seeing his final work.
The relationship between mother and son required a delicate balance between protective love and purposeful purpose. S. Epatha Merkerson and Kent Moran deliver this aspect beautifully, each expressing their opposing points of view. Additionally, Kent Moran is to be commended for taking on such a physically demanding role while serving as both director and lead actor. Kent trained for six months at Manny Pacquiao’s gymnasium in Venice, California to prepare for his role.
Another actor who made this movie worthy is Justin Hartley, Jaden’s opponent in the championship fight. His overconfidence and inflated ego cast the challenge in dramatic terms and polarize our allegiances. The fact that he fights dirty adds to the dangers Jaden faces.
Production values paint the Bronx location as a gritty underdog and it’s Jaden’s dedication that gives hope to its downtrodden residents. Giacomo Belletti’s camerawork keeps us in the mix, moving deftly to provide both questions and answers to what’s to come next. Composer Pinar Toprak’s score perfectly provides the dramatic energy that guides us through this emotional journey. Anthony Muzzatti and Kent Moran’s editing nicely articulates the struggles, the climb out of poverty to support his mother.
This film goes all the way and shows that if we fight for who we are, we can become winners. Film reviewed at 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 and Rebecca Slick; Art direction by Amy E. Bishop; Costume design by William Eng; Makeup by Guy Guido; Cast by Tiandra Gayle; Music by Pinar Toprak; Edited by Kent Moran & Anthony Muzzatti; Cinematography by Giacomo Belletti; John-Michael Damato, second team manager; 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.
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