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Tribeca 2024: Bang Bang Pops With Tim Blake Nelson

Tim Blake Nelson in Bang Bang. Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

The first full scene of Bang Bang gives audiences a long, hard look at what will be the main character of Vincent Grashaw’s movie played by Tim Blake Nelson, best known for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and O Brother Where Art Thou? The 60-year-old veteran character actor is shown as a disheveled middle-aged man with oily hair living in an out-of-style home. He’s in a surprisingly lean and cut shape for his age. Wearing nothing but tighty-whiteys, Nelson gyrates between sloppy dancing and shadowboxing while holding and swigging a bottle of hooch. What’s spurring this interplay of movements is regressive dark folk by the Polish group Daj Ognia blaring on a record player and boxing highlights of his younger self.

From this opening character introduction, folks might think it is easy to get a read on the hermetic ex-boxer Bernard “Bang Bang” Rozyski. The dude looks like a twice-baked hot mess, especially when a snubnose revolver enters the picture. If viewers have seen other stories of flamed-out pugilists, the details of the picture painted by Grashaw fit the modus operandi. If that wasn’t enough, the second sequence shoves the messy mop across another cinematic floor.

The poster art for the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival premiering Bang Bang
Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

When Bernie leaves the house, the previously-pirouetting man is now scooting on a wheelchair into the rough streets of Detroit. Worse yet, he’s snuck that revolver into a church where mayoral candidate Darnell Washington, played by Showgirls’ Glenn Plummer, is speaking and preaching. The way Bernard stares daggers through Darnell informs us without words of who he’s brought the gun for—an old opponent. Though he doesn’t get the opportunity he seeks, the quarry of Bang Bang has most certainly been marked. 

At this point, Bang Bang has fashioned itself to be perceived as a revenge drama. Echoing the likes of George Foreman, the upstanding citizen Darnell Washington turned his boxing success into becoming a multi-millionaire product pitchman. One of the stepping stones on his stairway to success in the 1980s was Bernie, and another was his brother Bobby. Whatever the old grudge is or was, a clear collision course is set.

As raw and intriguing as that scenario is, that is not the entirety of Bang Bang. Darnell didn’t see Bernie at the church, but his cousin Sharon (Fame’s Erica Gimpel) did. She’s an old flame of Bernie’s and a go-between for the rivals. Moreover, on the same day, Bernie’s estranged daughter Jen (Nina Arianda of Being the Ricardos) dumps him with his grandson Justin (Vampire Academy’s Andrew Liner). The beleaguered young man needs to stay local to complete community service hours while she starts a new job out of state.

As the film says, “fighters recognize fighters.” In Justin, Bernie sees untapped fire and his own lineage, and he convinces the kid to train to become a boxer by dangling the rewards of respect and money. Kudos to trainer Martin Snow, technical advisor Teddy Atlas, and five set medics for putting Tim Blake Nelson and Andrew Liner through the proper paces to look and perform in the squared circle. The boxing scenes in Bang Bang, drawn up by stunt coordinator Frank Blake (Desperation Road) and director Vincent Grashaw tripling down as the film’s fight choreographer and editor, could not be more grounded. Free of energetic montages, cheering crowds, and flashbulbs, the film carries a strength in simplicity over spectacle in this department. Nevertheless, this worthy project evolves into a bonding experience that becomes the core of Bang Bang unlocks a missing drive within Bernie.

Another boost for Bernie comes from Erica Gimpel’s role as Sharon. Unlike most everyone else who think Bernie is irascible, irredeemable, or dead, she sees the passionate heart inside the brawler. Their rekindled relationship brings a softening humanity to Bang Bang. Gimpel becomes a fountain of both empathy and bracing integrity in a film murky with down-on-their-luck characters, including her own. She iss a perfect addition to this kind of story.

Breathing in his character’s metaphoric and reignited cinders right down to his soul, Tim Blake Nelson outdoes himself as a volatile performer in Bang Bang. The extremely reliable actor has always displayed a quick verbal wit, normally spun for comedy. Here, Nelson sternly dips his words with tortured acid, making his snappy replies sting quite differently. In playing the surly Bernie, Nelson adds a subtle, sneering grimace of a facial expression of a character that believes his own tough talk with no recourse or remorse. It’s not cocky when one can back it up and, more often than not, he can. That glare only gets brighter when he won conversations and confrontations. In this writer’s eyes, what’s happening here in this Tribeca festival darling is award-worthy.

While this burgeoning family relationship lifts spirits next to the increased vigor, the beef with Darnell Washington does not go away in Bang Bang. If anything, it goes to an unexpected place of heft and commentary than originally thought possible. What was looking like a swirling drain of benders and a downward spiral of poor choices that was costing a young life along with an old one finishes very strong. Grashaw’s movie peaks nicely in the final fifteen minutes with dueling monologues that dare to escalate further than words and buried hatchets. How the uncertain Washington vs. Rozyski history turns out—and the coda that follows—funnels all of the combined physical and storytelling effort Bang Bang was churning into an earned and emboldened finish. 

Sure, it may have taken a bit to get there, but talented writer-director Vincent Grashaw (What Josiah Saw, And Then I Go) demonstrates the shrewd patience to make those culminating moments happen on their own time and without some grand public showdown or audience. The “what for” and the “why” come to a head with dramatic focus. Bang Bang was never built to be anything close to a cliched sports movie. Instead, what burned intimately for the people involved stayed intimate to the bitter, and therefore realistic, end.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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