Directed by Jim Sheridan
The climactic fight in The Boxer takes place in an ornate ballroom, surrounded by tables of wealthy guests who applaud the two fighters tearing each other apart. It’s a strange setting that underscores the brutality and insanity of two men trying to beat each other up. In other boxing matches, both in this movie and others, the crowd is often more rowdy than the two men in the ring, and the physical violence can be seen as some kind blood lust or manifestation of deeper frustrations. The wealthy audience near the end of The Boxer has the same kind of blood lust as these other crowds, but they also have a certain amount of amusement watching these poorer men hurt themselves for their pleasure.
The story here takes place in Belfast as tensions run high due to actions on the part of the IRA. This movie doesn’t concern itself too much with the political situation which long ago resulted in the formation of the IRA but rather with the consequences of such long-standing feuds and violence.
Our hero is Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis), a fighter just released from a 14 year prison sentence for his involvement with the IRA. Once a violent man, he is now something like an enlightened figure, determined to keep the peace and go see about the woman he loved when he first went to prison at the age of 19. Danny’s modest ambitions don’t go over well with the people most involved in the IRA. His sudden hope for peace is a slap in the face to the other members who see any such agreement with the British as a sign that the deaths of all the IRA members before them were meaningless. His love for Maggie (Emily Watson), a woman who has since remarried but whose husband is in jail, is similarly an affront to the IRA members who are so keen on protecting their own, particularly the imprisoned.
Danny went to prison partially because he refused to name names, but the men who wait for him on the outside have no words of thanks to offer. They see him as a threat, even as all he wants to do is restart his old boxing gym and help train the kids who would otherwise adopt their fathers’ anger and keep the feud going.
There are two men who represent the IRA. One is Maggie’s father, Joe (Brian Cox), and the other is Joe’s second in command, Harry (Gerard McSorley). Joe is well-versed in the conflict between the IRA and the British, having taken part in the violence once upon a time, but now he hopes to negotiate a peace. Harry, on the other hand, hates Joe for this. He lost his son to the violence and wants nothing but revenge.
For much of the film, Danny’s doings don’t lead him into trouble, but he’s always on someone’s radar. He works with an old friend and coach, Ike (Ken Stott) to get the gym going, but soon Ike accepts a gift of boxing gear from the British police. Their kids are poor, and the gym is poorer, but Danny expresses his frustrations with Ike for accepting the equipment, knowing it will make the news and piss off the IRA, which it does.
Such a seemingly benign offering puts the target on Danny’s back. Later, during a publicized boxing match meant to bridge the divide between the two warring factions, the British police chief who gave the gym the equipment is killed in a car bomb explosion. This leads to a riot, and we see the full effects of this anger when Maggie’s young son Liam tosses Molotov cocktails and then burns down Danny’s gym. He does this partially because he has adopted the community’s anger, but also because he glimpsed his mother and Danny together and worries they will run off together.
Danny is the fighter, but he’s also the peacemaker. He is a boxer unlike many we’ve seen in boxing movies, of which there are so many. Jake LaMotta used the ring as a form of penance, giving and receiving the beating as if he’s in confession. We see Jake in Raging Bull just about falling apart on the outside, and inside the ring the violence, because of his involvement, is self-inflicted. The boxers of other movies are hyper-violent, but Danny is something else entirely. He boxes as a way to heal the community. The ring becomes a safe place for men to take out certain anger and even more importantly for the rowdy crowds to vent their frustrations, even if only through yelling.
Their anger is understandable, to be sure. Harry is the most villainous character in the movie, and by the end he will be shot, but his anger comes from a place of hurt. It’s easy to forget that Harry lost a son, but the end of the movie reminds you he too was a victim in all this mess. In the waning minutes of the movie, after Maggie, Liam and Danny have put their foot down and decided not to hide their affections, Danny is kidnapped by Harry and his gang, taken to be shot. Danny puts his hands against the wall and accepts what’s about to happen except that the men shoot Harry instead and tell Danny to get out of town.
It’s a rousing moment. The music swells, and Maggie and Liam arrive to help carry away a badly beaten Danny. They will announce that they are “going home,” and you’re meant to be ecstatic because our heroes get the happy ending they deserve. And yet, there is another shot with Harry’s wife weeping as she cradles his body, reminding us of whatever humanity he once had.
So this is all to say that the anger in The Boxer is to be understood, but the senseless violence is emphasized by that final boxing match, in a luxury ballroom in England. Danny fights for something bigger than himself, but even in this match he recognizes the futility of it all. He knows who is cheering for and against him, and he probably sees the money passing hands from person to person as they gamble on one man over the other. Though he’s one punch away from knocking his opponent down, he embraces him and says, “it’s over.”
Danny walks out of the ring and effectively forfeits the match. It’s a meaningless fight, and they’re only hurting themselves.
Up Next: The Mirror (1975), THX 1138 (1971), Solaris (1972)