shiner (2002)

director: john irvin

michael caine, martin landau, frances barber

If the recent success of British gangster films like Snatch is built on anything, it's the persona that Michael Caine began building years ago, with films like Alfie and, in particular, Get Carter. It's a particular kind of English archetype, the lad, revealed as either hedonistic and happy-go-lucky like Alfie Elkins, or hard and effortlessly violent like Jack Carter. With Shiner, Caine returns to the character at full strength, bringing both sides together with all the skill of a successful if, paradoxically, underrated actor.

Billy "Shiner" Simpson is a small-time boxing promoter trying to ride into the big time on the back of the Golden Boy, his first really marketable boxer, who also happens to be his son. On the morning of the big fight everything starts to go wrong, from the crippling case of the nerves suffered by his son Eddie, to the mismatched duo of police detectives who want to bring him in for questioning in the death of a boxer at an illegal bare-knuckle bout run by Billy. As blessed with charm as he is unburdened by conscience, Billy sweet talks the cops into giving him a grace period, assuring them that, as soon as the match is over, he'll turn himself in.

Of course, things don't turn out so simply. Golden Boy loses the fight with terrible swiftness, and Billy is ruined, having bet everything on the match. He hauls the boy out of there, convinced that he'd been "got to", and while interrogating his own son in typical underworld style, on a deserted factory site, the boy is shot dead by an unknown assasin. Billy goes berserk and, hunted by the cops, goes on a hunt of his own, aided by his loyal henchman Stoney (Frank Harper).

Billy is convinced of a conspiracy, headed by a big-time American promoter (Martin Landau), and his paranoia - the resentment of a small-timer made nearly insane by his hunger for a break - goes into overdrive, as it becomes apparent that he can't even trust his own family. The rampage that Billy launches the next morning is truly terrible, but instead of vindicating him, it only serves to make his life disintegrate further. There aren't too many actors who could make this explosion of ugliness truly watchable except for Caine, whose eminent, virtually unfailing watchability is the quality that made a real star out of an actor whose background isn't too dissimilar from someone like Billy.