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Director: Paul Borghese
Writer: William DeMeo
Stars: William DeMeo, Alec Baldwin, Michael Madsen, Shannen Doherty, Danny Glover
Boxing movies are never about the boxing. It’s about the boxer. It’s about the hurdles, the letdown and the triumphs. No one is in the theater to watch the fight. That said, those fights are important, and establish the fighter’s heart and drive.
Back in the Day, the latest from director Paul Borghese, tells the story of Anthony Rodriguez (William DeMeo, who wrote the screenplay and produced), a half Italian-half Puerto Rican fighter from neighborhood whose story we see in two parts; as a man and as a boy. It starts with him winning the middle weight championship and in a casual interview, works backward from there. As a boy (played by Cristian DeMeo), he’s raised in a troubled household where his Puerto Rican father (Manny Perez) is a stumbling drunk and mistreats his Italian wife (Annabella Sciorra). The neighborhood is ‘run’ by a couple of low-level but powerful local mob bosses (Michael Madsen and Alec Baldwin), and when his mother is killed, they take him under their wing and try to make him a champ. In his corner is Eddie ‘Rocks’ Trevor (Danny Glover), who trains him to take on the best.
Told in non-linear fashion, we jump from timeframe to timeframe as we piece together Anthony’s story. He’s always in a mix of things, be it street fights as kids or something worse as adults. Seems no matter where he goes, he gets in a brawl, usually because his best friend Matty (Joseph D’Onofrio), a pudgy “Joe Pesci wanna-be” who owns a small pizzeria with a massive gambling problem pokes his nose into trouble where ever he can find it. Anthony’s in love with Maria (Shannen Doherty), a girl he’s known since childhood, but is mixed up with a power-hungry thug who beats her. When he hits it big of course, he’s ends up two naked young girls in his bed even though he longs for Maria. Only in the movies.
So all the parts are here. Borghese and DeMeo pack their film with the usual suspects and in every corner we are met with familiar tropes and clichés. Broad strokes are made with stereotypes and plots, tackling racial hatred, discrimination, mobsters, betrayal, jealousy, and more. Drawing obvious inspiration from the Rocky franchise and numerous mobster movies (DeMeo got his start in an uncredited role in A Bronx Tale), the formula is carefully followed to exacting detail, and because of that, there is no denying there are moments that work, sometimes well. Still, the production tries far too hard to recall some of these better movies and it shows. Even the poster is a shameless ‘homage’ of Robert De Niro‘s Raging Bull. The scattered structure makes it a little awkward to follow at times, but otherwise the plotting is competent as is Borghese’s direction, if not clinically excessive. DeMeo somehow was able to coral a stable of quality actors to his cast, all who do well enough, but shine in comparison to most of the remaining stars of the film who simply can’t compete.
The whole experience is low-key with boxing scenes filmed with a few extras ringside pretending to be in a packed arena, a forgettable score that never inspires, and a dismal, obvious training montage that should never have been included. There’s also an awkward cameo by Mike Tyson that feels like he owed someone a favor. But where it really falls apart is the terribly contrived ending that sullies whatever good effort the film built to that point. Just as example, at the restaurant where the interview is concluding, Anthony is asked about two characters he hasn’t seen in a long time who literally, just as the interviewer says goodbye and moves off camera, walk into frame. It only breaks down further from there.
That said, not all films need to be big budget movies to work, and many smaller films hold their own among the more heavily-backed projects. Back in the Day is a solid story and DeMeo is charismatic enough to keep it engaging. This is obviously a passion project for the writer/actor/producer and it’s always good to see someone’s efforts see fruition. Let’s hope he can find better material for his next project.
Back in the Day is in select theaters and VOD.