Instinctively, there seems little more to add to the cinematic pantheon of boxing dramas. Sparring – from first time director Samuel Jouy – doesn’t suggest much otherwise. This is well-handled albeit conventional filmmaking, with sharp editing and acting, particularly from Mathieu Kassovitz in the lead role of Steve Landry, a beaten-out journeyman pugilist who is nearly as old as his 49 fights.
We find Steve defeated after a bout. This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling – he has won only 13 matches over his career, a point constantly reiterated by bemused fellow boxers and trainers. Why go on? Steve leaves the venue alone. The opening sequence intriguingly depicts the isolation and self-sufficiency of the common, average fighter, following the protagonist as he conducts on-the-spot, ephemeral remedies to his injuries before exiting through the backdoor. When he tries to reenter for his bag, security won’t let him. “I was in the ring!” he offers disbelievingly. Steve and his family live on the spectrum of relative poverty. His wife wants him to stop getting hurt but insurance bills need to be paid. His daughter requires piano lessons. One gym encounter gives him an opportunity to become sparring partner for star boxer Tarek M’Bareck (Souleymane M’Baye). Steve desperately needs the money but blows it – he’s sluggish and out of his depth in the first session. He has close to no natural talent as a boxer and we wonder where those 13 wins came from. But from dogged persistence (he stalks Tarek and runs after him) and questionable tactical advice (he says Tarek is scared of being hit), Steve is back in the fold, his fortunes now entwined with the flashy but committed former champion.
This film tests the wisdom that one can’t criticise art for unoriginality. It’s remarkable that almost no trope from boxing cinema is excluded. And positioning Steve as the heroic, traditional breadwinner will strike many as old-fashioned. His wife and children show strength and endurance, but in a manner unconditionally supportive of Steve’s concerns rather than their own. But the excellent fight choreography and Kassovitz’s striking, dominant performance does lend a trace of authenticity to proceedings. For an unashamed ode to the underdog this picture survives the final round – it’s just the viewer who has end up a vegetable. *shoots self*
Sparring does not have a UK release date yet.