Finding Tommy Riley (2004)
This is one of those deceptive films that for the first 15 minutes or so gives you the déjà vu impression that you’ve seen this story before. “Been there, done that” so why bother? The over arching plot we’ve seen dramatized a dozen or more times before. A young somewhat talented but troubled boxer who once had Olympic ambitions encounters an old trainer and former boxer who has left the profession and is currently working as an English teacher with little or no enthusiasm. He sees the kid working out in the ring and is sufficiently impressed by his abilities that he decides to train him and hopefully turn him into a championship caliber fighter. Sound familiar? But then just as we get settled into thinking that we know where this film is going is when it fools us because in spite of the plot’s familiar touchstones that’s not what this picture is about at all. It’s about people and their connection to each other, which is sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual and other times practical. Specifically it is about the relationship between the boxer (Tommy Riley) and the trainer (Marty Goldberg), their similarities and their differences. But then the story goes beyond that, it explores the dark and sometimes forbidden aspects of their characters as well. And between the acting, the writing and the direction the film gets so close to these characters needs and desires that it sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing. At least it did so with me. Like the sight of the proverbial bad accident I didn’t want to look at but I absolutely had to. But I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give away any of its surprises.
This is a character driven piece that effectively focuses primarily on two individuals. The trainer Marty Goldberg played by Eddie Jones an actor I’ve known since the late 1960s when we worked together as waiters in a popular restaurant in New York City. Over the years I’ve seen him on stage and on screen many, many times and watched his talent grow until he has become one of the most reliable and most assured character actors in the business. But in all that time I’ve never seen him tackle a character as varied and contradictory as this. And in doing so Eddie doesn’t miss a beat. He gives a performance that (to me) is the most masterful of his career thus far… Keeping pace as well as matching Eddie beat for beat is the actor JP Davis who plays Tommy. Because this is so much a two -character story both actors had to be equal to each other in execution or the film would’ve come off as unbalanced. It doesn’t and it’s a tribute to their abilities. There are other excellent performers in the film but its success depends on the two primary actors. And they carry it so well that I can’t imagine any other actors in those roles doing it any better. In addition to that JP Davis also wrote the insightful and poignant screenplay. Eddie O’ Flaherty is a director I hadn’t heard of before. But based on the sensitivity and restraint with which he directed this delicate screenplay, I’m sure I’ll be hearing more about him.
This is a boxing story so there are many big boxing moments, which are skillfully crafted for maximum impact and suspense. But it is in the quiet moments where the individuals simply talk to each other about seemingly mundane things that the story becomes more dimensional, more recognizable and more human. This too I think is due to the director’s handling of the material that allowed its subtler points to surface in unexpected ways.
When the film was shown at various festivals it was met with a host of enthusiastic critical response. I think it even won a few awards. I was certain that it would at least have a life in the movie theatres that catered to discerning audiences. In other words “the art houses”. But I was wrong. As far as I know the film hardly played in any theatres at all and then simply disappeared. So once again we have a film that could’ve been a contender but didn’t get a shot. Who knows why? It’s just one of the unfair quirks of the industry. And that’s a shame. A real crying shame because if any film deserves to be seen and appreciated for its many virtues, this is it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an absolute masterpiece but it is a hell of a lot better than ninety percent of the stuff that’s out there and deserves a second chance and a first look if you haven’t seen it.