Editor’s Note: The Challenger opens in limited release tomorrow, September 11, 2015.
Jaden (Kent Moran) is tired of being a full-time loser. A high school dropout now in his 20s, Jaden is on the verge of being fired and forever relying on friends and family to support him, because he clearly can’t do it himself. In need of both money and respect, he decides to start training as a boxer with Duane (Michael Clarke Duncan), a former boxing manager who now owns a laundromat. Claiming that because he got into a fight in high school, fighting is obviously all he’s good at, Jaden is convinced he’s finally going to be a winner. Duane agrees, coming out of retirement after years of self-exile to train the new kid in the ring.
The Challenger, the latest from writer-director-producer-actor Kent Moran, decided somewhere along the way that the audience need not be let in on little things like character motivation or purpose.
Why Duane is so sure of Jaden after hearing a single, tepid speech from the kid is never quite clear. The Challenger, the latest from writer-director-producer-actor Kent Moran, decided somewhere along the way that the audience need not be let in on little things like character motivation or purpose. As if to emphasize this point, the dialogue is a collection of single-sentence soundbites that neither flow nor sound authentic. The plot is beyond derivative; there are a couple of tips of the hat to Rocky, less out of respect than in hopes that people will think the film is a remake, which it practically is, if one can properly call the wholesale stealing of a classic film’s plot a remake. There’s even a Burgess Meredith analogue in The Challenger: it’s just that shameless.
The supporting performances are solid for the most part and go a long way toward keeping The Challenger bearable. Frank Watson as Jaden’s friend Terrence has true cinematic presence, and Michael Clarke Duncan, despite sometimes floundering in a sea of bad dialogue, gives a nice performance. S. Epatha Merkerson is the real stand-out here, being a fine actress saddled far too often with the task of making mediocre dialogue shine, thus making her perfect for The Challenger, though by all rights she should be in much better films.
Most of the quirks of low-budget filmmaking could have been forgiven had the film captured the excitement and passion of boxing, but, almost implausibly, The Challenger — which I feel I must mention once again is a film about boxing — works very hard not to show any boxing at all. Half the blows in Jaden’s first bout aren’t even seen, but rather the result of some panicked sound work in post. The film certainly knows its own weaknesses, thus self-consciously skips over almost all of Jaden’s matches, relegating them to brief smash cut montages and a few words on the screen, making its failures even more embarrassing.
. . .almost implausibly, The Challenger — which I feel I must mention once again is a film about boxing — works very hard not to show any boxing at all.
Jaden’s life is meant to be full of struggle and inequality, an idea that becomes offensive when it’s clear that the film thinks a strict boss, beat-up sneakers and noisy refrigerators are the signs of a life barely worth living. This can be laid entirely at the feet of the script, one that believes a rough childhood and early mornings at the gym are all one has to endure in order to become a major champion in a highly competitive sport.
After enough of this trite, unbelievable plot, you’ll likely find yourself getting angry, but just past anger is laughter. There’s nothing else to do but laugh when the film tells you that reality shows are produced by two dudes with cameras running around asking random questions. This is a film that also tells you, repeatedly, that basic cable is free, and that boxing hasn’t been shown on cable since the 1960s. By the time Duane presents an allegedly touching gift to Jaden before the big fight — his dad’s old boxing shorts — laughter is pretty much all anyone in the audience will have left to hold on to.
With a bland leading man, a plot ripped off from the 1970s classic Rocky and dialogue that's painfully trite, The Challenger is just another incompetent indie that's a trudge to get through.