*** 1/2 [3.5 out of 5 stars]
Starring Eddie Spears, Russell Means, Rick Schroder, Julia Jones, Tim McGraw, Peter Greene and Wayne Knight. Directed and written by Rick Schroder. Produced by Karen Beninati, David D. Moore, Andrea Schroder and Rick Schroder. An Old Post release. Drama. Rated PG-13 language, violence and sexual innuendo. Running time: 97 min.
Age-old cliches and time-honored sentimentality fall mercifully to the wayside in actor Rick Schroder's exceptionally impressive writing and directing debut, "Black Cloud," the story of a young Native American and his determined quest to find peace and redemption through boxing.
Up-and-comer Eddie Spears stars as Black Cloud, a Navajo youth struggling to cope with the mixed-up feelings of reservation life. When his emotions are channeled into the boxing ring, he's unbeatable. When his frustrations are released elsewhere, he invariably gets himself into trouble. For Black Cloud's mentor and father figure, Bud (Russell Means), the greatest challenge isn't so much teaching the boy how to fight others, but to stop fighting himself. Indeed, Black Cloud often doesn't seem to appreciate the best things in his life, particularly the devotion of long-suffering girlfriend Sammi (Julia Jones), a single mother whose previous relationship with a hell-raising rodeo cowboy (Schroder) proves to be a much greater stumbling block for Black Cloud than for her. It's only after an Olympic scout (Peter Greene) offers him a chance at making the U.S. Olympic team that he's forced to finally take stock of his life and confront his demons.
It's always something of a risk when a story is framed around the sport of boxing--comparisons to both "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" become inevitable, and rarely turn out favorably for the contenders. But Schroder's film more than holds its own, its dazzling, gut-wrenching fight sequences marvelously contrasted with earnest, sensitively-acted drama. This is clearly something of a passion project for Schroder--a personal, heartfelt hymn to the human spirit and its infinite capacity to triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. Even jaded sports film snobs are likely to find this effort both richly rewarding and profoundly inspirational.
Not to be overlooked here are Schroder's talents as a writer, particularly with respect to the depiction of reservation life and such aspects of Native American culture as Shamanism. But Schroder is careful to neither fetishize nor sensationalize the practice (as many often do), integrating it organically into the broader narrative so that it reinforces, rather than distracts from, the central thematic concerns.
Given Schroder's career trajectory from child star to adult star to filmmaker, it's a foregone conclusion that some will attempt to draw parallels to the career of Ron Howard, although the sheer mediocrity of Howard's 1977 directing debut, "Grand Theft Auto," gives Schroder the clear edge in any such analogy. Not only is "Black Cloud" anything but mediocre, it's an exciting harbinger of even greater things to come.
** 1/2 [2.5 out of 4 stars]
Rated: PG-13 for violence and language including sexual innuendo
Cast: Eddie Spears, Russell Means, Julia Jones, Rick Schroder,Tim McGraw
Writer/director: Rick Schroder
Family call: Fine for teens and up.
Running time: 97 minutes
Opens Friday at: Park Place, El Con, Century Park, Foothills, Cinemark
"Black Cloud" is a punch-drunk boxing melodrama that can't quite connect as it swings for an inspirational uppercut, but introduces us to a knockout of a lead actor, Eddie Spears.
Spears broils with a fervent inner frustration as Black Cloud, a 21-year-old boxer struggling through a bleak life on the Navajo Reservation in Chinle, Ariz., and takes out his frustrations on the amateur pugilist circuit. He is a victim of racism from whites, whom he categorically hates back. Blessed with an opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic boxing squad, Black Cloud struggles over the notion of whether he'll fight for a nation for which he feels no loyalty.
In a life plagued with death of loved ones, rampant alcoholism in his family and hassles from a cowboy rival and a policeman who oversteps his boundaries, the tantrum-prone Black Cloud's slugfests with his inner demons are more explosive than those in the ring.
It's up to Spears, who makes up for his scant film experience with a raw intensity that singes the corners of the screen, to carry a predictable story to a higher level. He succeeds in the first half, which is jammed with riveting characterization and harsh vignettes, but the final act is so maudlin that even Spears' focus can't right the rocky road.
Writer/director Rick Schroder - yes, the "Silver Spoons" kid, now 34 years old - proves a steady hand at carving out well-rounded characters and dramatic urgency. His film is geared to show respect for the Navajo culture, but steps a bit over the line into stereotyping by setting up his protagonist as a man with a psychic connection with wild horses and the ability to stop time and visit the "spirit world" in the middle of fights to talk to dead relatives and generate some extra juice in his punches.
The spiritual stuff, which Schroder says in an interview is not in line with Navajo doctrine, is a bunch of raging bull.
The humanist, non-spiritual elements register true. Black Cloud loves Sammi (Julia Jones), a single mother who bristles at a visit from her callous, bigoted ex, Eddie (Schroder), a rodeo rider who is the father of her son. Jealous that Black Cloud is with Sammi, Eddie challenges him to a fight, and Black Cloud - just as hateful as Eddie - is more than willing to hand the cowpoke a whipping. It's only the beginning of the troubles between the two men, since Eddie has the sympathy of the sheriff (Tim McGraw) and has enough ruffian pals ready to overcome Black Cloud's fists.
Sammi is in line to receive government-funded tribal housing, but Black Cloud jeopardizes her application when a researcher discovers one of his ancestors was white. The boxer, who lives with his wino dad, must confront the fact that the blood of a race he has trained himself to hate runs through his veins. Sammi and Black Cloud's trainer, Bud (Russell Means), are there to offer encouragement, but then so are his loser friends, with mind-numbing booze at the ready.
Much of the inner struggle is centered on Black Cloud's decision on whether to participate in the Olympic trials. This could have been heavy material to explore, but Schroder falters by having Black Cloud make his decision immediately, with too little justification.
The fight scenes are well choreographed, and boxing-movie fans suffering from a drought, which wasn't at all sated by this year's pathetic "Against the Ropes," may be able to latch onto "Black Cloud." The flawed indie film is exciting enough, and has a puncher's chance at success.
** [2 out of 5 stars]
Black Cloud is quite an achievement for director Rick Schroder.
He doesn't leave out a single stereotype.
In drawing on hackneyed plot devices from both sports movies and films about Native Americans, Schroder essentially has created an extended version of Walker, Texas Ranger without the intellectual dialogue or, sadly, Chuck Norris.
Standing in for Norris is country singer Tim McGraw, who delivers his lines with the gritted teeth of a man sitting on a tack. He plays the local sheriff, who suffers from pronounced mood swings, alternating between redneck avenger and roadside counselor.
The story, written by Schroder, is bland formula, with a plot built around the same old stuff that haunts every movie about Indian reservations. Perhaps it's not humanly possible, but it would be nice to see one of these films that doesn't have a sweat lodge, a wizened grandpa, a crooked White fed, an alcoholic parent and repeated trips to the spirit world.
Such worn-out concepts aren't enough for former child actor Schroder, whose last major role was in the TV show NYPD Blue. He also includes the headstrong, reckless athlete, the calm, philosophical coach and the dastardly, racist villain. Technically, Black Cloud is an original story, but there's nothing new here.
The Black Cloud (Eddie Spears) in question is a tough Native American boxer whose career is jeopardized when he pummels Eddie (Schroder), a rodeo cowboy who once fathered a child with Black Cloud's girlfriend (Julia Jones). Eddie apparently is raring for a beat-down, shouting insults even after Black Cloud has clubbed him to the ground.
The sheriff (McGraw) arrives, but tribal law and the intervention of Black Cloud's coach (Russell Means) keep the boxer out of jail. Later, when the sheriff pulls Black Cloud over on a road, the lawman inexplicably lets him go, having taken nice-guy pills or something.
Black Cloud also learns he is of mixed blood - one of his ancestors was White - and this throws him into a tailspin, during which he shouts, "I'm a mixed blood," just in case the word didn't reach the tribal newspaper.
As a director, Schroder repeatedly confuses drama with melodrama. When an Olympic boxing scout approaches Black Cloud, he says, "I fight for the Navajo Nation," which sounds good until you realize he could still do the Navajo Nation proud if he were on the U.S. Olympic team.
Later, during a match, Black Cloud is knocked down and travels to the spirit world to have a little talk with a dead relative while the referee looks down on him. Talk about your long counts - Dempsey-Tunney had nothing on this.
On the up side, the production values are good, especially considering the $1 million budget, and Spears gives a convincing performance in the title role. Schroder offers a perfunctory if believable portrayal as the bad guy, although he deserves more of a comeuppance.
Perhaps it will come in the spirit world - or on NYPD Blue II.