Although 2006 still has five months to go, one cinematic competition is over: Helen Mirren has clinched the Isabelle Huppert Award for Pathological Dedication to a Calamitous Role with her performance in Shadowboxer. Playing a cancer-ridden assassin named Rose, Mirren surpasses her French counterpart, who’s long specialized in icy-veined characters who dabble in murder and self-mutilation. Yet this unintentionally hilarious gangsta soaper also features loony nude—and drag—scenes for Cuba Gooding Jr. and Stephen Dorff and a crude attempt or two to emulate Wong Kar-wai. William Lipz’s script is careful to dole out the story in small portions, but however it’s served, it’s embarrassing: A former leftist revolutionary, Rose is the adoptive stepmother, partner in crime, and quasi-incestuous lover of conscientious young executioner Mikey (Gooding). Rather than travel the world like most movie hit people, they restrict themselves to Philadelphia and its environs. That means they keep encountering the same small group of wretches, notably wealthy and sadistic mobster Clayton (Dorff), doctor to thugs Don (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Don’s whiny nurse/girlfriend, Precious (Mo’Nique). On a vicious whim, Clayton decides to eliminate his wife, Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), and Rose and Mikey get the job. But Rose is feeling repentant as death approaches, and when she sees that Vickie is about to give birth, she can’t pull the trigger. Instead, she delivers the baby, gets Don to do a postnatal checkup, and makes Mikey promise to protect mother and child after she’s gone. (How will she depart? You wouldn’t believe it anyway.) Clayton thinks he’s got everything covered after he hires a killer (guess who) to eliminate Vickie’s friend Neisha (Macy Gray), but eventually he’ll learn that Vickie and their son survived. The directorial debut of Monster’s Ball producer Lee Daniels, Shadowboxer strains for ambience while pursuing a plot that would get laughed out of a telenovela story meeting. Daniels enlisted 2046 editor William Chang to intertwine color-saturated flashbacks with gauzy images of Rose and Mikey’s shootin’ and screwin’, but it’s hard to conjure the sublime when the events are so silly. And by the way: Zhang Ziyi is a much more graceful embodiment of erotic obsession than Cuba Gooding Jr. in a dress. —Mark Jenkins

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