A Swerve Films production. Produced, directed, written, edited by Katya Bankowsky. Camera (color), Anthony Hardwick, Tony Wolberg; music, Zoel; sound (Dolby stereo), John Bucher, Alexander Markowski. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 2, 1999. Running time: 72 MIN.
With: Lucia Rijker, Jill Matthews, Freddie Roach.
It's not often that a subject steps out of docu-land looking like a star, but that's definitely the case for Lucia Rijker, a scrappy yet introspective Dutch-born woman who just happens to be the world's top female fighter. Initially, she's just one of many profiled in the punchy "Shadow Boxers," but by the time it's over, she's given a hard left hook to everyone else in the ring. Polished pic's likely to gather a cult following, but treatment is sharp enough to warrant a few rounds of mainstream action as well.
Helmer Katya Bankowsky, herself a sometime pugilist, spent five years documenting the milieu she discovered after donning gloves in NYC's burgeoning femme-boxing scene. Snappily assembled pic first spreads out to follow a clutch of up-and-coming fighters, the standout among them the small, spunky Jill Matthews, as adept with press-conference quips as she is with her fists. (She says she prepared for a Golden Gloves championship with "a manicure and a pedicure.")
But the others fall away as Bankowsky zeroes in on Rijker, who's steadily working her way up the ranks. A European kickboxing champ before hitting the States, this daughter of a blond Dutch woman and a black immigrant from Surinam clearly has the strength, poise and determination (not to mention good looks and excellent English) to knock obstacles out of her way. We see her move from Holland to L.A. and rise from small bouts to become the first female signed by top promoter Bob Arum. Everywhere she goes, she wins the respect of even the most skeptical males, from tough gym partners to fellow residents of a boxing camp (although the wet towels on the floor finally get to her there). Most intriguing is her mutually respectful relationship with Freddie Roach, a youngish trainer who ranks as an intellectual in this brawn-heavy subculture.
Rijker is pretty thoughtful herself, and her running commentary w which could have been trimmed a bit -- is a cut above the usual sports palaver. "I don't have to confront myself," she offers at one point, "but for some reason I do. Boxing forces me to go places I wouldn't normally go." Thanks to hot lensing from Bankowsky's cinematographers, even fight-leery ands are given the basic vocabulary of the game: Each battle, and each opponent, is so different, you can't help but admire Rijker's versatility and confidence, which eventually bring her the world championship.
Pic ends with her positioned to leave nose-crunching behind, most likely for a career in movies. As "Shadow Boxers" makes obvious, she has the concentration and charisma necessary to hold the screen without effort, and could likely be impressive in a dramatic context -- if she doesn't get hung up in silly Van Damme actioners.
In any case, great-looking pic, moved along nicely by Argentine DJ Zoers hip-hop score, reps an enduring look at a crossroads sport. Like Rijker, it transcends easy categorization, and can travel wherever the highest level of athleticism is appreciated.