Is it possible to make a boxing movie without clichés? Judging by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Sambá, the possibility remains nil. Not even relocating the testosterone-fueled melodrama to the sun-soaked streets of the Dominican Republic can save this strident genre pic. Despite its energetic Bachata music and likable leading man, Sambá depends too heavily on recycled plot points, turning it into yet another unremarkable addition to the “underdog boxer perseveres” canon.
Francisco “Cisco” Castillo (Algenis Perez Soto) is an angel-faced fortress just out of prison. He steps back into the home he left behind in the slums of Santo Domingo and his mother shrieks. She hasn’t seen him in 15 years. The strong and stoic type, Cisco doesn’t tell her where’s he’s been, nor does he tell Leury, the moody teenage boy who appears to be his younger brother. Without fully reconciling with either family member, Cisco takes a job on the docks and life goes on.
Meanwhile, Nichi (Ettore D’Alessandro) is an Italian, ex-boxing champ with a temper, a ruined eye and a chip on his shoulder. He owes an ambiguous bad guy a lot of money for unknown reasons, and when he sees Cisco throwing punches in a brawl, he takes the former convict under his bulging wings. The two form an unlikely bond (you guessed it), and it’s not long before Cisco is winning matches and earning cash for them both. Following the well-worn path set by every mentor-student relationship before, Nichi and Cisco are eventually presented with an obstacle, and whether or not they can get over it and trust each other again becomes a major plot point, and a dull one.
Every boxing movie has the responsibility of coming up with a new angle, and while directors Guzmán and Cárdenas make a few artful choices, it’s not enough to save Sambá’s helplessly worn-out content. There’s even a montage or two of Cisco running on the beach, punching the air and rising up from the mats, determined to tackle his enemies.
The most interesting scenes in Sambá turn out to be those starring Leury, the gawky teenage boy who falls under the influence of a shady friend and starts robbing pedestrians at gunpoint. Will he fall under the seductive sway of violence or will he, like Cisco, find a more productive means of easing the pain of poverty? Guzmán and Cárdenas’ shots of Leury’s crimes are slick, intense and quietly important because they show just how easy it is for a young man to be swept up in a cycle of violence.
Sambá succeeds most when it draws inspiration from its setting and hooks the audiences with hard questions about crime and responsibility. If only Guzmán and Cárdenas had dug more deeply into the pressures placed on young men in the Dominican Republic instead of relying so heavily on tired tropes of athletic glory.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.