In 10 Words or Less
An angry, young Navajo's redemption lies in his own hands
There's something about boxing, and sports in general, that makes for enthralling films. It's likely the concept of man battling man and the stripped-down truth of the conflict that's so appealing to filmmakers. Whether that's why Rick Schroder ("NYPD Blue") chose it to be part of the first film he wrote and directed isn't quite known, but it gave him an effective canvas to work on. Combine it with the idea of a young Navajo man who doesn't feel like he has a place in the world, and you have the kind of film no one's really made yet. At the least, Schroder gets credit for trying something original.
Unfortunately, once he sat down at the keyboard, a lifetime of film clichés and stereotypes flowed freely onto the page, along with some mildly embarrassing dialogue. From the Indians having quasi-mystical powers to the oppressive white man's society, the environments the character of Black Cloud (Eddie Spears, "Into the West") is placed into are not likely to be anything new to you. How Spears turns his somewhat one-dimensional character, complete with the angry-young-man attitude and General Custer disgust, into a man worth redeeming and caring about is impressive though, and at least part of that credit must go to Schroder.
Black Cloud's story begins and ends in the boxing ring, as his desire to fight fuels his existence. There's really no goal in sight, except to win his next fight. While these types of "rising up" stories normally abandon their heroes in the world in order to stack the odds against them, Black Cloud has a rather strong support system, including his trainer Bud (Hollywood's go-to Indian, Russell Means (Pocahontas)), his best friend Jimmy (the very likable Nathaniel Arcand (Ginger Snaps Back)) and his girlfriend Sammi (beautiful newcomer Julia Jones.)
That doesn't stop the bad influences in his life, like his drunk father and a despicable cowboy named Eddie (Schroder, in his fourth job on this movie), from leading him down the wrong paths. Because of a family background he is ashamed of and a general hatred of John Wayne's people, Black Cloud is angry and likes to fight. That's a point he makes way too clearly with a cliché line of dialogue, as when a boxing scout asks him how long he's been fighting, he responds, "All my life."
Feelings like that are bound to get a person in trouble, and in Black Cloud's case, it does, putting him in the sights of the local sheriff (country music star Tim McGraw.) The sheriff is easily one of the most confusing characters in the film, as his motivation for any given scene seems to be picked from a hat, without any consistency, apparently there to solely support Black Cloud's opinion of the white man. The only character more artificial is Wayne Knight's morally bankrupt housing coordinator, a villain so obvious he should have had horns and a pitchfork.
Salvation for Black Cloud might be around the corner, in a chance to join the U.S. Olympic boxing team, but there's more than enough complications in Black Cloud's path, including his own bad attitude, to prevent him from succeeding. As is usually the case in such stories, single-mindedness costs Black Cloud much of what he holds dear as he spirals to rock bottom, before being able to "rise up" again.
This film is exceedingly violent, even for a boxing movie, with two brawls outside of the ring that are cringe inducing, one of which that was stunningly cruel in its climax. Schroder filmed the boxing scenes very tight, actually pulling off some innovative shots that didn't merely mine past boxing film techniques, and ended up making them feel more "real." Working with cinematographer Steve Gainer (Bully), he went for non-traditional angles often, and created a visually kinetic film that's enjoyable to watch, with some surprising performances and polished audio and visual editing.
New Line is distributing Black Cloud on one DVD in a standard edition, packaged in a standard keepcase, with an insert that lists the chapter stops. The disc features well-designed, animated, anamorphic widescreen menus, based around the film's southwestern locales. Options available are watching the film, viewing special features, set-up options, selecting scene and DVD-ROM features. Language options include English Dolby and DTS 5.1, and English 2.0 Surround, along with English and Spanish subtitles and English closed captioning. The scene selection menus have animated previews and titles for each chapter.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is absolutely beautiful. Colors are vibrant, the level of fine detail is high and blacks are solid and deep. Skin tones are just about perfect, grain is at a bare minimum and there's barely a speck of dirt or damage, limited to desert scenes. For a low-budget indie, this movie looks tremendous. There are certain scenes that could be mistaken for HDTV they are so crystal clear.
Impressively, both Dolby and DTS 5.1 tracks were included on this DVD, along with a Dolby 2.0 mix. As one might expect, the DTS track is the clear winner. The separation of sound among the surrounds is excellent, while the mix is deep and bold, both in dialogue and music. Several scenes explode in sound, with some very detailed mixing and nicely varied use of audio effects. The Dolby track is strong, but lacking in the bass that makes the DTS so good, while the 2.0 track is not acceptable in comparison due to its lack of depth.
The selection of extras is limited, starting with a feature-length audio commentary, with Schroder, McGraw and boxing trainer Jimmy Gambina. Why they didn't bring in Spears to talk about the film instead of McGraw is somewhat understandable, due to the concept of selling DVDs, but his presence is definitely missed in terms of trying to get deeper into the film.
The track starts off with way too much apple polishing, including a lengthy rundown of Gambina's resume, before getting into the actual behind-the-scenes info. Schroder is wearing his director's hat during the commentary, acting as an unofficial moderator, prodding his mic-mates to share. There could be more screen-specific aspects to the commentary, but it's generally rather conversational and easy-going.
The film's theatrical trailer is also included, in anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby 5.1 mix. This preview sells the movie quite well, without giving away too much. Several other New Line trailers are also included, seemingly chosen to match the themes of Black Cloud.
The Bottom Line
Though the film trades in stereotypes and clichés more than any film really should, thanks to its plot, a contemporary tale of a young Native American trying to beat the odds, it has a very unique feel to it. Schroder made an impressive debut in his directing career, but his writing still needs work, a fact partially hidden by a talented cast. The DVD is a step above bare-bones, but the presentation is much better than your average studio release, making for an engaging experience. Boxing fans might get a bit more out of Black Cloud than your usual filmgoer, but in the end, the movie is an entertaining indie anyone can get into, as long as violence isn't an issue for you.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.