What the hell happened to Robert Townsend? I’m not asking it as a rhetorical flourish—it’s a serious concern. What happened to him? When he burst onto the scene in 1987, as the writer, director, and star of the clever low-budget comedy Hollywood Shuffle, he was discussed in the same breath as Spike Lee; his follow-up, The Five Heartbeats, was a well-reviewed and more ambitious picture, even if it met with pretty limp box office. But somewhere along the way, he went astray (maybe it was The Meteor Man, maybe it was B.A.P.S., maybe it was his five-season family comedy The Parent ‘Hood), and his directorial career as of late has been mostly relegated to made-for-TV and straight-to-DVD efforts like Phantom Punch, a tepid, tin-eared, shallow biopic of boxer Sonny Liston.It sounds, on paper, like a good idea. Liston—a colorful figure who famously battled Muhammad Ali, was backed by the mob, and died under mysterious circumstances—is ripe for biographical treatment, and Ving Rhames is just about perfectly cast in the role, bringing a toughness and authenticity to the picture. The trouble is, he’s got no materials to work with. The screenplay by Ryan Combs (whose previous credits include such illustrious titles as Straight Out of Compton, Dirty Kopz, and I Accidentally Domed Your Son) is an absolute mess, a painfully underwritten and paper-thin account with less insight than any paragraph of Liston’s Wikipedia page.
Combs’ script is written as a series of short, declarative scenes—someone walks into a room, announces what’s happening now, the other person responds, and then they move on. Sample scene: Liston walks in to the gym of Caesar Novack (Nicholas Turturro), who tells him, “I’m the man who’s going to change your life… Father Lloyd tells me you’re going to be the next heavyweight champ!” Liston nods. That’s pretty much it. Scene after scene just sits there, lifeless on screen—clunky expositional dialogue with no motivation or momentum, just sign-posting, events announced and immediately discarded. Nothing is sustained; I’d be amazed if there’s a single dialogue scene in the film that runs more than two minutes, and there’s not a line in it you haven’t heard before (Liston, when caught cheating: “I love you!” His wife: “Well you’ve got a funny way of showing it!”).
Most of the storytelling is done in the picture’s endless montage sequences, while the structure hits all of the familiar beats—the mob, the dives, the girls—but with no depth, just rote recitations of scenes cribbed from other, better movies (Phantom Punch often plays like a Cliff’s Notes version of Raging Bull). There’s certainly no sense of who Liston was, made what him tick, what made him a great fighter. We also don’t really understand his place, either in the history of boxing (imagine, if you will, a film that features Ali as a character and doesn’t give him any lines) or in American culture; the racial politics of his fighting career are barely hinted at.
Some of that is Townsend’s fault—the picture has no sense of place or time, no inhabitation of its locations. The costumes and sets feel like costumes and sets; nothing seems lived in. It all looks like the paint’s still drying. The film’s (presumably) low budget doesn’t help matters any; everything is shot in tight, as if they could only dress the scenes for medium shots. This becomes a real issue once Sonny becomes a big-time fighter—the venues look awfully shabby, and we can’t help but notice that everyone past the second row of the audience is bathed in total darkness. Between the unfortunate production values and the cheapo black-and-white, slow-motion transitions (what was this cut on, iMovie?), the whole thing has the feel of a shoddy made-for-TV movie.
Ultimately, Phantom Punch is less akin to Ali than it is to those low-budget, straight-to-video biopics of serial killers, like Gacy and B.T.K.--sloppily written, poorly produced, with only the most surface relationship to historical fact. The boxing choreography is passable, and Ving Rhames certainly looks the part. But that screenplay… woe is me.