Yet another morbid cautionary tale about a hit man with a heart of gold, Shadowboxer marks the directing debut of Lee Daniels, an adventurous producer whose prior projects included Monster's Ball and The Woodsman. Despite assembling a talented cast and crew, Daniels is stymied here by a script that takes itself far too seriously.
The story opens in the past, as a young boy fondles a pistol while his hit-man father abuses his mother in another room. Fast-forward to grown-up professional assassin Mikey Malone (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) as he comforts his terminally ill partner and lover Rose (Helen Mirren). They agree to one more job to finance a vacation before cancer claims her.
Club owner and gangster Clayton (Stephen Dorff) suspects his wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito) of infidelity. After killing her alleged lover with a broken cue stick, Clayton takes a contract out on Vickie. Mikey and Rose accept the job from their facilitator Andrew (Tom Pasch). They wordlessly eliminate a half-dozen bodyguards in and around Clayton's mansion. But Rose won't kill Vickie because she's pregnant-so pregnant, in fact, that she gives birth to a boy right then and there.
Announcing that "we're keeping them," Rose hides the mother and son, first in her downtown apartment, then in a suburban home. They use Don (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a mob doctor, to help cover their tracks. Before she dies, Rose makes Mikey promise to take care of Vickie and her son Anthony. Mikey keeps up the ruse for seven years, gradually bonding with the boy and then his mother.
Mikey begins to have second thoughts about his career when, dressed in drag, he kills the father of a seven-year-old. But Clayton finds out about Mikey's deception from Precious (Mo'Nique), Don's spurned lover, forcing a confrontation that will result in several more fatalities.
Gooding's post-Jerry Maguire career has seen the Oscar-winning actor flounder in a series of ill-conceived roles. Here playing someone cut off from his feelings, Gooding mistakes restraint for depth, reining in his natural ebullience with dour results. To be fair, it's a role that would baffle any performer. Mirren, a stellar actress who has kept largely to television in recent years, bulls her way through the often unintentionally funny script, building a credible character out of sheer determination. The other actors, a fearless Dorff in particular, are badly in need of stronger direction. One exception is Macy Gray, who plays Vickie's doomed best friend. Her performance, full of slurs and stumbles, shows a wit and playfulness largely missing from the film.
Daniels can be faulted for Shadowboxer's turgid pacing, for relying too heavily on close-ups, and for the film's weird preoccupation with both Gooding's naked rear end and Ferlito's faked orgasms. But the biggest problem with the film is its preposterously over-the-top script. One alfresco sex scene features a prolonged flashback before climaxing in two murders. It's enough to make you swear off pulp forever.