Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Jake Tropila Featured Film

Bang Bang — Vincent Grashaw [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 19, 2024

Despite three decades of reliable character actor work and idiosyncratic supporting roles, it’s surprising to find that Tim Blake Nelson has seldom been granted the chance to shine as a leading man. Sure, the Coen brothers gifted him the eponymous role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs after years of collaboration, but Nelson has rarely had the opportunity to carry a feature film all on his own. Enter director Vincent Grashaw, previously behind What Josiah Saw, who, with his latest film, Bang Bang, hands Nelson a shot in/at the title. And that’s both figurative and literal here, as Nelson stars as Bernard “Bang Bang” Rozyski, a former boxing champ turned irascible layabout, now facing a new lease on life. It’s an overly familiar tale of redemption for a man who’s been to hell and back, though Grashaw infuses plenty of grit into the proceedings, keeping the elements of this character study grounded while occasionally leaning on cliché for support. Of course, the real draw of Bang Bang is Nelson, handed one of the meatiest roles of his career, and hungrily sinking his teeth in.

The premise of Bang Bang reeks of the worst kind of film fest treacle: having hung up the gloves years ago, pugilist Bernard, known affectionately to all as “Bang,” resides in Detroit, subsisting on ketchup sandwiches and utilizing a wheelchair for transport, despite otherwise being able-bodied. Bang’s heyday was in the 1980s, when his greatest rival was Darnell Washington (an excellent Glenn Plummer), who put Bang’s glory days down for good after emerging victorious in a high-profile bout between the two. Rushing back into his life, his daughter Jen (Nina Arianda), who has an employment opportunity in Chicago, requests Bang to watch his estranged grandson, Justin (Andrew Liner). Though tense and standoffish, Bang accepts Justin into his home, eventually recognizing the troubled teen’s potential as a fighter. With the help of fellow trainer John (Kevin Corrigan), Bang raises Justin to be Detroit’s next boxing champ, all while maintaining a relationship with cancer survivor Sharon (Erica Gimpel), owner of Bang’s preferred local bar. With quick cash on the line, Bang puts his faith in Justin to dig them both out of the holes they’ve fallen into.

When we first meet Bang, he’s a broken man, his face a battered visage of bumps and bruises, forcing him to retreat into alcohol and loneliness. Darnell, who has gone on to make a name for himself selling George Foreman-esque kitchen wares, is now a mayoral candidate for the city. The washed-up Bang still bears a grudge, even contemplating drastic measures to find some peace of mind. The arrival of Justin shakes up Bang’s life further, forcing the boxer to form an uneasy bond with a kid who’s been sentenced to 200 hours of community service for fighting at school. Thankfully, Grashaw avoids an inspirational “I thought I was teaching him, but he was actually teaching me” narrative, offering no easy outs in this world of pain. The film is more of a glimpse into the psychology of a boxer’s destructive nature, interrogating why men choose to fight when they can’t do anything else. It’s a cycle of tragedy that’s raw and unflinching, sold well through Grashaw’s stark direction and some steely cinematography by Pat Aldinger.

As Bang, Nelson is terrific, credibly selling the part of a former boxer while remaining blunt and hilarious when interacting with others. (When asked how he got his nickname, his simple response: “Punching people.”). The screenplay by Will Janowitz finds too much comfort in rehashing familiar beats from similar stories, and trouble really arises with how Grashaw opts to end the feature, jettisoning multiple plot threads to spend quite some time ambling about toward a final note of profundity that few will be convinced the film actually earns. Like its title character, Bang Bang is rough and ungainly, but taken as a showcase for Nelson’s talents, one could do a whole lot worse.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.