Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review (Tribeca 2024): ‘Bang Bang’ is Tim Blake Nelson’s Time To Shine

Director: Vincent Grashaw
Writer: Will Janowitz
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, Glenn Plummer, Andrew Liner

Synopsis: Tim Blake Nelson stars as ‘Bang Bang’ Rozyski, an eccentric retired pugilist obsessed with rectifying the sins of his past.

When we’re first introduced to Bernard “Bang Bang” Rozyski (Tim Blake Nelson), it’s far from a pretty sight. He’s drunkenly dancing around his home in nothing but boxers, bottle of alcohol in hand. To be fair, what he’s doing couldn’t really be called dancing, I just don’t know what else you’d call it. Regardless, he appears to be having a bit of a breakdown. And he’s just an absolute mess. But Vincent Grashaw’s Bang Bang isn’t attempting to hide that fact. Instead, it puts the behavior on full display for the audience. Over the course of its runtime, this brazen behavior develops from comical for the viewer into something far more upsetting. It’s the slow realization that we’re being introduced to a man who, at the end of this path, may not ever find a semblance of peace. It’s just a way to kill time in the hopes of wrapping it all up sooner.

As written earlier, Nelson portrays Bang Bang as a hurricane of curses and alcohol. His overall brash demeanor is also always on display. He’s consistently drenched in sweat. He’s beat-down, always popping pain medication for his hips. His clothes are mainly covered in stains, likely from the ketchup sandwiches he sustains himself on. His harsh attitude reaches new heights when, upon a surprise visit from his daughter and grandson, Justin (Andrew Liner), he outright refuses to provide any help in watching him for a bit while his mother is out of town. Eventually, he acquiesces upon being in the room with Justin again. This is such a great role for Nelson. Both his voice and particular look lend themselves incredibly well to such a stand-offish character. Yet, you fully believe him in his rare tender moments. It speaks to the talent Nelson has as a performer. For example, at one point in a supermarket, he literally drops all he is doing to help a stranger. A lesser actor would make this seem jarring after all the anger we have seen projected thus far. But here, it creates more of an enigmatic presence than anything else.

There’s no denying that this is a star vehicle for Nelson. But there’s more stewing beneath the surface of Bang Bang. The film is set in Detroit, although not being shot there hinders part of the film. Still, the script does not beat around the bush when it comes to all the turmoil and hardships the city has endured for decades. Bernard is a broken man in a seemingly broken city. He feels left behind. He feels like the world has left his home behind. He feels like those who he grew up around and fought against have left him behind. In the latter case, he details that most have ended up dead at a young age or in jail. Yes, he’s angry at the hand he’s been dealt in life. But he appears to be even more internally furious and pain-ridden that the hands don’t stop getting dealt. So through Justin, we see him attempt to pick up the pieces. Maybe for all the pain he’s dished out, he’ll be able to channel it into something that will do some good for the family name. This is, in many ways, an inspirational sports story. But it’s told with more vulgarity, violence, and vitriol than any you’ve likely seen before. Those moments are when Bang Bang is at its best. It’s primarily everywhere else in the film that it begins to lose some steam.

It feels as if Bang Bang wants to say something about the history of Detroit, but never quite reaches a substantial point to make. Instead, there are simply general observations and musings on the city. It takes away a bit of the overall effect of the film, even if the film is not directly about the city itself. To link the character and the setting together so often in the film would have you think that it would amount to something in the end. And then the other perplexing element of this film is the moments in which it chooses to be tender. On one hand, there’s an interesting dichotomy at play between Bang Bang, who the public sees, and Bernard, who Sharon (Erica Gimpel) sees. The two are old friends, possibly even ex-lovers, who find themselves in the midst of a fling. At one point, Grashaw places the two of them into an incredibly vulnerable sequence. It’s unlike anything else in the film, and is handled very beautifully in terms of how the scene looks, as well as how it plays out in isolation. But within the feature as a whole, it seems to completely clash against everything around it. It feels as if it’s pulled from a different film. To clarify: if taken completely out of the film and played on its own, it’s a well-executed and performed scene. There’s just such a stark contrast between the sequences that bookend it, let alone the rest of the film, that it doesn’t feel as if it earns this sudden turn. That’s not to say the scene diminishes the character, but it just poses a series of questions that the film doesn’t seem all that interested in.

But as I wrote earlier, this film basically operates as a vehicle for the always excellent Nelson. And it’s in his hands that it thrives in any sort of way. He has the ability to hide a lot of pain behind mannerisms and phrases that leave you equal parts laughing and in shock. Early on, a cop tells Bang Bang that being nasty is overrated. It doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. And to be honest, the audience won’t be either. This is due to the fact that Nelson plays this character with that vitriol in a way that is wildly refreshing for a sports drama. And then, in the final moments, there’s a radical shift. While not entirely earned as a character reveal, it’s a touching and important disclaimer about the entire film. Again, this rides on the back of Nelson. Despite all his flaws, you can’t help but be a bit endeared to his prickly persona. And then the film ends on a rather touching note. It’s one of much importance that I don’t think should be held to the final moments. What’s been alluded to throughout now serves as a dedication to those in similar real-world circumstances. Rather than frame those earlier tender moments as merely an event, perhaps it would have played better as a clearly broken man desperately trying to fill the hole in his heart. Bang Bang, at the very least, is an occasionally interesting film with a very strong-willed lead performance. It wouldn’t hurt to have more sports films with as much grit and grime as this one. Importantly, it never glorifies the lifestyle. It admits that there are many ways in which the sport of boxing can ruin lives. It’s just up to the individual to decide how far they want to take it. The film just hopes the individuals have the ability to choose for themselves.

Bang Bang celebrated its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Spotlight Narrative section. More information on the film can be found right here.

Grade: C-

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