Willie is one of Los Angeles's many homeless people. One day, a group of rich teens come around offering to pay Willie and his contemporaries to fight each other. Caught up in this violent, underground sport, Willie has only the burnt diary of a little girl to keep him company and provide him with the willingness to push through life.
Living just north of a major city like Boston, I've had many jobs that require me to work or drive through it regularly, and like anyone who travels through the city, you see people less fortunate who are forced to live on the street. The everyday person would be dismissive toward them when they see them, and even I have been guilty of the same from time to time. But I often did feel a degree of sympathy for the homeless I saw along my way back then and I wondered what exactly had happened to push a person to fall to such lows in life. While watching ‘Cardboard Boxer’ I was hoping for a character piece that explores just that.
Thomas Haden Church plays Willie, a homeless man who lives in California’s Skid Row, and is seemingly harmless on the surface. However, like most people who live on the streets, there is a lot of pain in his life that brought him to where he is today. As you observe Willie, you tend to see that he feels things more than other people, and as a result he becomes sentimental toward a little girl’s diary that he finds in a dumpster. He finds himself relating to the little girl and her feelings about being outlasted in life. I have always liked Church as an actor, even in his more minor roles, and ‘Cardboard Boxer’ isn't any different. You feel a great amount of empathy for Willie and his plight.
Unfortunately, we don't get a whole lot of insight into Willie and why he makes the choices that he does. A big part of his character development is that he makes the decision to partake in fighting other homeless men for money. Why does such a calm and somber man diverge into such violence? Other than stating the obvious, which is that he has anger about his place in life, I have absolutely no idea what brought Willie to this point. This movie doesn't want to delve any deeper into what makes any of these characters tick other than what is on the surface.
As the fights go on, they draw the attention of a friend of the homeless on the streets of Skid Row named Pope (Terrence Howard). Why is he just named Pope? I have no idea; they also don't want to delve into that either. All we know is that Pope takes care of his homeless friends however he can, and when a group of kids force his friends to fight each other for money, he is compelled to react. Howard is as great in the movie as he usually is, but again his depth is paper thin. What drives him to have the empathy he does for the homeless? Beats me. What if Pope actually had one foot in the street as it was and he was just one step away from being on the street himself? That would allow us to see the downfall of all of these men through Pope, as he ends up on the street at the end. That is the kind of depth I could get behind here. But that isn’t what we get here.
‘Cardboard Boxer’ only wants to live on the surface of its characters. Church and Howard turn in fantastic performances that did carry me through the film. However, you feel these actors striving for more, but the material just isn't on the page. There is a lack of passion in the way this movie is made where they want to throw us into a day in the life of a homeless person with only a halfhearted that comes at the last scene of the film. This movie needs more passion and heart to give these fine actors something to work with. Like a tree that is past it's prime, it has a solid exterior with great structure. But inside, it is hollow and unstable, unable to support itself.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA brings ‘Cardboard Boxer’ to Blu-ray in a standard hardcover case that mimics the passionless quality of the film itself. Inside we are given a BD-50 Blu-Ray with no digital download, or DVD version. We get the traditional skippable trailers that lead to the stock still image main menu.
‘Cardboard Boxer’ works its way into your heart with a 1080P MPEG-4 AVC encode that fares well enough while still showing its limitations. While actually being filmed on California's Skid Row, this entire film’s cinematography doesn't seem to have any geographical identity, or sense of place. With that being said, what they actually set out to do was accomplished.
Framed at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the streets of Skid Row look sharp and with an impressive amount of detail. With any close up of Willie, you can actually make out two small cuts on his lip from a prior injury which show the kind of detail we have come to expect from a 2016 transfer. White and black levels are right where they should be, never dipping too high during the washed-out day scenes, or too deep in the night scenes. My only gripe with this transfer is it doesn't strive for just that little bit more. It seems that the same passionless quality that was in the film trickles down into the cinematography and the sense of place. This transfer unfortunately falls under the serviceable column; it's perfectly fine if you don't come into it expecting for it to set a mood and a sense of place.
‘Cardboard Boxer’ falls a bit short of pummeling you into submission, with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that, like the video transfer, is fitting for the movie. The sounds of the streets come alive in your surrounds and give you a feeling of living on the streets with Willie. The fights get increasingly louder, and as you get to his final fight, you and Willie have an entire crowd screaming and betting behind you.
The LFE track is unusually light here with not a whole lot going on beyond the score. Dialogue is at a generous volume and is clear and audible. I just can't shake the sense that this track had a “been there done that” quality to it. Sure, the surrounds were impressive for a drama of this kind, but beyond that, it feels less eager to please. For what it's worth, this is an average track that gives you that little extra to remind you it has something going for it.
Theatrical Trailer (2:04 HD)
‘Cardboard Boxer’ feels very much like a slice of life film. We get dropped into Willie’s life with very little beyond what he wants to show us throughout the few days we follow him. Some slice of life films leave me cold by focusing only on the present, and not on the past that brought our character there. That's exactly where this movie runs into problems. We don't get a sense of what made Willie the broken man he is today, and that is huge when you are trying to understand why he is so angry. What carried us through are the strong performances from Church and Howard (what little we get of him). The lack of passion in the storytelling doesn't let us in beyond the surface level, and that carries over into the Audio/Video transfer. I would equate this whole experience to being at an Aquarium. No matter how close you get there will always be that plate glass between you.