Starring Prem Singh. Rated PG
There’s no boxing-movie cliché left unturned in this biopic about flyweight champ Pardeep Singh Nagra, renamed “the Punjab Tiger” here, but it’s an amiably rousing effort all the same. Soft-faced Prem Singh stars as Nagra alongside Michael Pugliese as Brian Doyle, his biggest rival in the ring and in other Syd Field–oriented matters. (The duo also supplied the screenplay.) Grizzly old Michael Harrity and grizzlier Mickey Rourke add up to one Burgess Meredith as Nagra’s trainers, who see something special in the angry young Sikh when he wanders into Rourke’s low-rent boxing club one evening.
Real life aside, the story here writes itself: Nagra has to defeat his own demons and, worse, the prejudices of his opponents and (worse still) the “American Boxing Commission”, which goes out of its way by several orders of bullshit to stop Nagra from entering the ring because his beard is such a major safety concern, unlike all those concussions.
Nagra’s counterargument—essentially, “But I’m Sikh, fuck off”—is considerably more convincing. Thus we have a courtroom drama to beef up the routine smash-edited pugilism, which perhaps elevates the new kid to the national tryouts a tad too quickly to invoke any real sense of his development in the ring.
But whatevs. The bigger story is all that bigotry, which has Nagra defending himself in street fights while he pleads that he’s just a regular American and “This is a great country!” Which makes him sound a bit dim, sadly, but also reminds us that Canadians Singh and Pugliese had to de-Canuck their screenplay and relocate it to Ohio from Nagra’s native Ontario.
Perhaps that’s how they got the dandified Rourke onboard. Ever more roguish in a way you’d expect from Keith Richards and not the owner of a back-alley boxing club, Rourke not surprisingly sucks up all the attention whenever he’s on-screen. With the actor’s life and work seemingly indivisible now, his unwholesome charisma is partly down to sheer otherness—that little Chihuahua never leaves his arm, even when he’s sparring with Nagra—but mostly because the crazy fucker can still act. Silently suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s, his Frank Donovan out weirds the pedestrian script and gets under your skin in the process. (“We didn’t get along so well,” remarks the 66-year-old star, with a resigned smile, when Nagra scans a photo of Rourke from his days as a doomed beauty.)
He makes it all worthwhile, but in the end, the film also has something nice to say about Nagra’s loyalty to his community in contrast to Doyle’s aggro superindividualism. (But remember, America’s a great country.) It probably shouldn’t step into the ring with Creed II, but Tiger could probably go a few rounds with Rocky III, say.