Tribeca: ‘Bang Bang’ is a Compelling Character Study with a Top-Notch Tim Blake Nelson

Tribeca: ‘Bang Bang’ is a Compelling Character Study with a Top-Notch Tim Blake Nelson

Every fighter wants to go out on top, and if that’s not the case, they’ll likely either spend the rest of their lives trying to achieve the glory that eluded them or leave it all behind to move on to something else. The former scenario certainly makes for better drama, and that’s part of the premise of Bang Bang, director Vincent Grashaw’s portrait of a once-famous boxer who opts to turn an unexpected chance to get to know his grandson into a way to salvage the family name by showcasing a new generation of fighting talent.

Bernard Rozyski (Tim Blake Nelson), whose nickname in the ring was Bang Bang, isn’t living his best life. He sometimes uses a wheelchair, apparently for when his bad hips flare up, and is generally disgruntled to anyone he meets. That includes his daughter Jen (Nina Arianda), who shows up with her son Justin (Andrew Liner), asking her absent father to finally do her a favor. It doesn’t take long for the two of them to connect, and Bang soon begins training Justin, who he calls Steve Jobs, to enter the ring and make his grandpa proud.

This film’s description might make it sound like another Creed, with one generation of famed prizefighter passing life lessons along to the next, but it almost immediately takes on a different shape. Bang first gauges his grandson’s interest by hitting him in the face and encouraging him to fight back, and Justin isn’t even all that interested in fighting until his grandfather seems excited by the possibility of him doing it. He would much rather spend his time doing the court-ordered community service that Bang can’t comprehend since, in his opinion, Justin is just doing someone else’s dirty work for free.

Bang and Justin are well-paired as characters since they live in different worlds, but the distance between them isn’t all that great. Bang piques Justin’s interest most when he talks about how Justin could win money that would enable him to buy his mother a house, which also speaks to Bang’s own regret about what he was able to do for his family following the unexpected end to his career, for which he blames Darnell Washington (Glenn Plummer), a prominent fighter who is now running to be mayor of Detroit and far too present everywhere Bang looks. Jen paints Bang as a cautionary tale for her son, but the life she lives isn’t all that drastically different from her father’s lackluster existence, just far less solitary.

Fresh off a voice performance in last year’s Oscar-nominated animated short film Ninety-Five Senses, Nelson is at the top of his game here. From the first scene, he’s instantly detestable and memorable, always ready to say much more than anyone else wants him to and seemingly itching for a fight everywhere he goes. It’s a fully involved turn that highlights the best of Nelson’s abilities. Relative newcomer Liner is an impressive find, matching Nelson well in their shared scenes. Arianda is typically different in her unfortunately brief screentime, and the supporting cast also includes worthwhile appearances by Plummer, Kevin Corrigan, Erica Gimpel, and Daniella Pineda.

Bang Bang is hardly meant to be the definitive boxing movie or an all-encompassing look at what it’s like to reflect back on life way too late, but it succeeds most as a focused portrait of one truly magnetic character. Rather than focus too tightly on the budding relationship between Bang and Justin, this film instead chooses to remain tethered to Bang and the course he’s on that will likely continue even if Justin is only a fleeting part of his life. That’s a very effective choice, and Nelson carries the film in an exceptional way that enhances it tremendously.

Grade: B+

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Bang Bang makes its world premiere in the Spotlight Narrative section at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

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