Jim Sheridan's third film in his trilogy about "the troubles" in Northern Ireland is simple, powerful storytelling.
A good portion of the drama in "The Boxer" is generated by the audience -- our Pavlovian notion that Daniel Day-Lewis will, at some point, get really worked up about something.
This would be far less fetching a possibility were the surrounding elements -- story, script, supporting characters, cinematography -- ineffective. And with O'Specialist Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father," which garnered Oscars for Day-Lewis and Sheridan, respectively) at the helm, you're bound to get a knowing portrayal of humanity's strife amidst the insanity of Northern Ireland.
So, once comfortable with the pace, we wait for the boxer, Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) to erupt. We are hypnotized by his disarming quietude because we know the moment is coming when our man -- face contorted, earnest anger spewing -- will make the blood boil. (To wit: "The Crucible," "Last of the Mohicans.")
We are as conditioned to this as to waiting for one of Nicolas Cage's sarcastic tirades.
In "The Boxer," we more or less get the payoff and we don't feel cheap for reveling in it. Perhaps that's because Day-Lewis, Sheridan and co-screenwriter Terry George have somehow managed to pack all the religious and political disparities, claustrophobia and impending doom that characterize "the troubles" into one man.
And it certainly doesn't hurt that his paramour is Emily Watson (fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in "Breaking the Waves"), effortlessly juggling anxiety and vulnerability, often through her cool, blue eyes alone.
In addition to being an overt statement, "The Boxer" is also a well-calibrated romance.
When we first meet Flynn, he's in a prison yard on the last day of his 14-year sentence, the result of a largely unexplained IRA incident in which he was only peripherally involved. While in prison, he demonstrates no vocal loyalty to the IRA, but also refuses to "name names."
Granted freedom, Flynn heads straight back to Belfast, hooking up with his old boxing coach, Ike (Ken Stott), who after Flynn's departure began drowning in booze.
The other person he left behind, former girlfriend Maggie (Watson), has long since married another man, also carted off to prison as an IRA activist. Here's the kicker: Danny could have asked Maggie to wait for him, but he didn't. He doesn't regret his decision, but does regret the result of it.
Because Maggie is a prisoner's wife, she's not allowed to engage in any extracurricular hanky-panky, and the IRA boys are keeping a close eye on Danny. The situation is made more troublesome because her father (Brian Cox) is a "district" big-wig.
As a result, Danny and Maggie spend much of the movie locked in a vigilant, arms-length dance, trying desperately to mask feelings that never died.
Even more concerning to the IRA, Danny rebuilds the boxing ring at the community center, returning it to its former status as a Catholic- and Protestant-friendly club.
The "little-uns" come to the ring because it offers a more controlled environment for venting their frustrations. No bombs. No guns. All welcome.
Naturally, it doesn't last long.
The whack-job, violent IRA faction -- apparently concerned about this so-called "peace" stuff -- drags the project into the gutter of destructiveness that has undercut Ireland for decades.
To make "The Boxer," Sheridan and George borrowed from their own unproduced screenplay about Irish boxing champion Barry McGuigan (who, incidentally, served as Day-Lewis' boxing coach).
The result is a satisfying mix of dedications, of sport and political cause. And boxing is an apt, backhanded metaphor for peace, or at least control.
The film has a mix of influences, including the slow-mo of the "Raging Bull" ring scenes, but for the most part there is little cinematic jostling. Only pure storytelling.
It may lack the soul-churning ache of "Father," but only because the elements unfold on a smaller scale -- more like Sheridan's second IRA tale, the practically unnoticed "Some Mother's Son," with less brooding.
"The Boxer," though short on sweep, is long on craftsmanship.
-- Matt Gowen is a full-time reporter for the Journal-World.