Monday, March 26, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #72: Shiner

Cast: Michael Caine (Billy ‘Shiner’ Simpson), Martin Landau (Frank Spedding), Frances Barber (Georgie), Frank Harper (Stoney), Andy Serkis (Mel), Danny Webb (Karl), Claire Rushbrook (Ruth), Matthew Marsden (Golden Boy), Kenneth Cranham (Gibson), David Kennedy (Chris), Peter Wright (D I Grant), Nicola Walker (D S Garland).

Crew: John Irvin (director), Jim Reeve and Geoff Reeve (producers), Scott Cherry (writer), Paul Grabowsky (music), Mike Molloy (cinematography), Ian Crafford (editor), Austen Spriggs (production designer).

Synopsis: Small-time boxing promoter Billy ‘Shiner’ Simpson is staging the biggest fight of his life. His son, Golden Boy, is contesting a world title at the York Hall in East London. Shiner accuses an old associate, Gibson, of skimming money from the event. Shiner has his two musclemen, Stoney and Mel, give Gibson a punishment beating. Golden Boy is nervous about the fight, but his father tries to boost his spirits. Police detectives want to arrest Shiner on suspicion of organising illegal fights. Such a bout left one fighter in a coma for 18 months and has now died.

Shiner persuades the police to arrest him after the title fight. After 30 years of struggle, Shiner has everything riding on Golden Boy. But his son loses in the second round. Shiner accuses Golden Boy of throwing the bout. The boxer is shot and killed by an unseen gunman. Shiner believes there is a conspiracy against him. He charges around London, trying to find those responsible. Finally, Shiner is summoned to the roof of the boxing venue to face the gunman. It’s Gibson – he was trying to shoot Shiner, not Golden Boy. Gibson, Stoney and Shiner all die in a bloody shootout…


Caine and British film producer Geoffrey Reeve had been frequent collaborators, working together on Half Moon Street, The Whistle Blower (both 1986) and Shadow Run (1998). In 1999 they conceived the idea for a modern reworking of William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, relocating the basic story to the world of prize fighting with Caine as the Lear-esque patriarch. ‘I thought it’s the nearest I’m ever gonna get to play it, so I’m gonna do it,’ the actor told The Times in 2001. Scott Cherry was hired to turn the concept into a screenplay, with John Irvin attached to direct.

The $10 million production began shooting at locations around London in January 2000. York Hall in Tower Hamlets was used as the fight venue, having been home to boxing matches in the East End for decades. To add verisimilitude a dozen great British boxers from the past 50 years joined the cast, sitting ringside during the fight. In 2001 Caine told the Big Issue that making the film was like going home: ‘I’d never shot such a Cockney picture, in which every person has a Cockney accent. It was quite extraordinary. I’ve known so many characters and stories like Shiner. I’ve been to those boxing places. My dad used to take me to Manor Place Baths in Southwark, and in the film there are boxers I know from that time who’d fought in Bethnal Green.’

Caine was suffering from arthritis in his hands during filming. That made shooting a scene where his character repeatedly punched a mirror particularly painful, but the actor said the entire role was just as tough. ‘Playing a role so emotional was quite heart-wrenching and exhausting, but that’s what I want to do now. As you get older, you look for characters that are more interesting. To see someone disintegrate is, although sad, very interesting to play. And as you begin to get older you begin to fall apart yourself.’

He rejected any suggestion that Shiner was just another British gangster movie, following on from the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). ‘I’ve been an actor for 40 years and this is my third gangster movie,’ Caine told Empire in 2001. ‘I did Mona Lisa (1986), Get Carter (1971) and this. So I’m not exactly trying to corner the market on gangster movies here.’

The film got its world premiere out of competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September 2000, where Caine received a career achievement award. It didn’t reach British cinemas for another year, when it was rated 18. Critics praised Caine’s performance but felt the movie was nothing special. The picture attracted controversy for a scene where Caine’s character holds a gun against a pregnant woman’s stomach. A pressure group called Mediawatch-UK described the sequence as scandalous and unforgivable. The film got a brief theatrical release, grossing just over $50,000. Shiner was more successful in Spanish cinemas, taking nearly $250,000.

The picture was released on DVD and VHS in Britain during 2002. US distributor Miramax had acquired North American rights to the feature in February 2001 but held it back for 18 months before releasing it on DVD, rated R.

Reviews: ‘Michael Caine is in fine form … the veteran actor remains compelling even as this somewhat hackneyed melodrama becomes increasingly overwrought.’ – Variety
‘Caine adds a bit of class to a stodgy crime flick … great performance, forgettable feature.’ – Empire

Verdict: Shiner may have drawn its inspiration from Shakespeare’s King Lear, but the link is decidedly tenuous. Most of this film’s problems stem from a script that tries too hard to out-think the audience. The ‘who shot Golden Boy’ conspiracy is a massive misdirection that leaves you frustrated and underwhelmed when the shooter’s identity is finally revealed. It’s a shame about the fumbled ending, as Shiner has much to recommend it. The film looks great, features an evocative Grabowsky score and a towering performance from Caine. He wrings every ounce of emotion from the material without ever going over the top. The supporting cast is strong too, especially Shiner’s two henchman, played by Frank Harper and Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)). It’s just the flaws in the script that down-grade a potentially strong picture. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before in Shiner.

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