Premiering at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival, Samuel Jouy’s feature debut Sparring sees Mathieu Kassovitz star as an ageing slugger in a boxing movie which mixes up the below the belt pounding of Fat City with the emotional jabs of The Champ.
Steve (Kassovitz) is a veteran boxer coming to the end of his career. His record is not great: 49 matches, 13 wins, three draws and 33 losses. His fame is such that the bouncers won’t let him back into the venue to get his stuff following a bout. Returning home his daughter Aurore (Billie Blain) asks if he won. “Almost,” he replies.
One fight shy of the end of his career – he’s promised his wife (Olivia Merilahti) to quit on his 50th bout – he is offered an opportunity to make some quick but not easy money. He will serve as one of a trio of sparring partners for returning champion Tarek M’Bareck (Souleymane M’Baye), who’s preparing for his comeback. The gig is a tough one, with potentially dangerous beatings dished out, but Aurore needs a piano and the family are struggling to pay their bills – he also has a young son – and so Steve takes it.
As well as the obvious financial incentive there is the opportunity for Steve to brush gloves, albeit briefly, with the high end of the sport. He has fought M’Bareck’s opponent and feels that he can offer some experience to the champ. However, Steve soon learns that his role is almost beneath contempt. He is humiliated time and again, but persists, finally earning himself the final fight that will end his career and a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the boxing world and his family.
Kassovitz first burst onto the scene as the iconoclastic director of La Haine, which introduced Vincent Cassel to the world. He’s probably most recognisable to English viewers as Amélie Poulain’s nerdy love interest in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Montmarte-based romance. Playing against type with a hooter that’s been broken more often than it’s been blown, Kassovitz is more than credible as a loser who can’t give up the romance of the noble art, even when his own position is one of human punching bag. There’s a genuine warmth to the family scenes, which is helped by great performances by the young Blain and singer Merilahti who is also responsible for the slick soundtrack.
First time director Jouy does a creditable job of bringing Steve’s world to life, though it seems to be getting increasingly difficult to film boxing matches in original ways without lurching into the ridiculous. A POV shot head on is particularly unfortunate as Steve bobs and jabs directly at the screen. On the whole though, Sparring goes the distance. It’s originality is in showing that not all losers get a shot at the big time, and yet there is dignity in persistence nonetheless.
The Locarno Film Festival takes place from 2-12 August 2017. For more info: pardo.ch
John Bleasdale | @drjonty