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Saturday, April 3, 1999

'TWENTYFOUR SEVEN'

Punching their way out of hopelessness


"Never go out with a boxer" was the perpetual refrain of one of my girlfriends. She would expand on the theme whenever her boxer boyfriend was in training for his next match and couldn't see her, which was all the time. The guy was either in training or recovering from the latest bout, after which he would go into training again.

"It's like going out with a convict," she would say. "It's like dating someone on the other side of a barbed wire fence." She held Rocky Balboa as her personal nemesis and despised boxing movies in general for "glamorizing it all out of proportion."

No argument. Having said so, it's hard to resist boxing movies and boxing characters: The broken bloke who's still standing after nine rounds, the sleazy promoter, the alcoholic coach with the gravelly voice and heart of gold. And I never knew a guy who could get through a boxing movie without throwing shadow punches in the air and yelling like a madman. Show me someone who remains unaffected by the sound of that gong and I'll show you a real cold fish.

But "Twentyfour Seven" is a boxing film that takes the genre a step further from the usual neat package of blood 'n' guts entertainment. Written and directed by U.K.'s Shane Meadows, "Twenty-four Seven" is devoid of glamour and, more importantly, of catharsis. Anyone who sits down expecting 90 minutes of gut-wrenching uppercuts from the left may feel deprived. That it's filmed in black-and-white enhances the suspicion that this is more about being artsy than boxing.

Fear not, though, for this is a genuine boxing tale but with a more inward and personal message. After "Twentyfour Seven," boxing will never seem the same.

The centerpiece is no young, buffed-up lad but Bob Hoskins. Although the whole movie is charged by him, he plays a mid-life nobody called Darcy who exudes failure, loneliness and dashed hopes. He lives in a town where all the houses look alike, and everyone trudges to the march of "twenty-four seven," which means "they take the same crap, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Darcy looks around and sees that even the local youths march to this chant and have nothing to do but get stoned and fight on the streets. So he decides to reinstate the town boxing club, which has been defunct for the past 20 years. He had once been a member, and there are good memories of camaraderie and sportsmanship. Darcy thinks that once the boys join up, there will be less crime and drugs, less feeling of being stuck in a rut.

Naturally it's not that simple. For one thing the task of converting a bunch of thugs, who habitually throw fish and chips at each other, into solid sportsmen is daunting. It's uphill work all the way, but at least Darcy feels useful and connected to the community.

Even the local gangster Ronnie (Frank Harper) is sufficiently impressed by Darcy's project to finance the club equipment and encourage his son, "Tonka" (James Corden), to join. The local paper comes around to do a story. Soon Darcy feels confident enough to stage a tournament with another club and the boys start feeling important for the first time in their lives.

The story is set in the housing development district of Nottingham, which is the scene of Meadows' boyhood as well. Apparently he and his friends had been bored out of their skulls and were ready for mischief when one day a man appeared out of nowhere and organized a soccer club. Meadows and his friends joined up and suddenly, life shone with purpose. The incident stayed with him and this film is his way of reliving it.

Interestingly, most of the cast were recruited from among his local riff-raff friends who, until Meadows showed up with a screenplay, had been stoned or just out of prison or drinking up their unemployment checks. "Twentyfour Seven" came along and changed all that, just as Darcy came along and changed the lives of their characters. Neat feat of poetic justice, this. A Nottingham tradition of doing the right thing.

The ending of "Twentyfour Seven," however, is not so pat. But then boxing movies, apart from "Rocky," seldom end on a cheery note. The very nature of the sport calls for despair, solitude, even humiliation.

In baseball, for instance, a pitcher who has lost a game can walk away from the mound with grace. Not so the boxer, and especially not in this movie. To see Darcy walking away is like waving goodbye to someone dear, who disappears to the other side of a barbed wire fence.

Boxing is poetry -- I suspected it all the time.

"Twentyfour Seven" opens April 17 at the Cine La Sept in Yurakucho and other theaters.


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