Tiger wants to be the boxing movie version of Buster Douglas, but the talent behind it can’t land a punch.
Here’s the jab: Tiger tells the story of Pardeep Nagra, an American Sikh, who fails to earn a spot on the US Olympic soccer team, but finds his athletic calling in the sport of boxing. The film chronicles the racism and stereotypical othering he endures while working toward his dream as a professional boxer. Patriotism imbues his tale as his court case works through the judicial system. He’s seeking equality from institutions that didn’t consider religions with tenets against shaving beards or the wearing of turbans when they wrote their bylaws. Religious freedom is a right guaranteed in the Constitution, but it faces resistance all too often when that religion is not Christianity.
Now, here’s the punch: Ardent fans of boxing movies won’t have to rewrite their Top 10 lists now that Tiger has been released. Unfortunately, it is an important story in need of storytellers who could tell it beyond established clichés. The entire enterprise views like a lost opportunity to celebrate the Sikh population of this country—a part of American culture that is often conflated with Islam—but because the filmmakers decided to reimagine Rocky, the movie comes off as standard and uninteresting.
One of the problems is anger. Director Alister Grierson and screenwriters Michael Pugliese and Prem Singh, who also plays main character Pardeep Nagra, have chosen to make their protagonist angry all the time. His anger costs him his chance in soccer. It gets him beat up the first time he enters the boxing gym that will house his eventual glory. The constant flare of his nostrils is a great concern to his uncle (Marshall Manesh), Pardeep’s de facto father in America. It causes him to reveal secrets. No moment is spared establishing anger as Pardeep’s motivating factor.
Playing one sustained note on any instrument is an irritating choice, and this film does nothing to change that reality. No one sustains a fury like Pardeep, and by the time the story demands some emotional evolution, it is too late. Having held his one note for so long, Singh’s performance feels unskilled and amateurish, but he is not alone. As Charlotte, Pardeep’s lawyer and love interest, Janel Parrish is given little to do but spout legalese and furrow her brows at Pardeep’s constant expressions of anger. Co-screenwriter Michael Pugliese plays antagonist Brian Doyle like a new actor workshopping all Michael Imperioli’s scenes from “The Sopranos” in a scene study class. And, then there’s Mickey Rourke, vibrating to his own frequency as gym owner and trainer Frank Donovan. With his designer jeans and grand hats, he looks like Tyler Durden in his sixties. It’s a cartoonish performance, but somehow old movie stars know how to pull that off.
As underdog stories go, Tiger hits the familiar notes. The talented yet undisciplined athlete finds an old, grizzled teacher who harnesses his talent, teaching him not only to fight, but to care for the people around him. The athlete learns the lesson that his prime is short-lived and, like life itself, every moment of it needs to be savored. Of course, there are training montages; how else would one illustrate the passage of time?
With its themes of equality, justice, inclusion and diversity, Tiger is absolutely the kind of movie you want to root for. There are even moments in the final fight between Pardeep and Doyle when the crowd is chanting and the music swells that a tear or two may be shed, but that is the movie’s ultimate problem. The movie doesn’t earn those tears. They are just the result of the formula. In boxing parlance, the movie is a tomato can, out of shape and unskilled. People thought Buster Douglas was a tomato can when he surprised the world and defeated Mike Tyson for the heavyweight title. Tiger wants to be the boxing movie version of Buster Douglas, but the talent behind it can’t land a punch.