By Liam Lacey
A would-be inspirational one-two punch of boxing movie and human rights drama, Tiger is very loosely based on the story of an Ontario amateur champion flyweight boxer, Pardeep Singh Nagra. A practicing Sikh, Nagra, in 2000, successfully challenged a rule that amateur boxers must be clean-shaven on grounds of religious discrimination.
This "Rocky in a Turban" film has a couple of things going for it, including diversity points for representation of Sikhs living in North America and its ambitious DIY energy. The script was co-written by its two Canadian stars: Prem Singh as Nagra and Michael Pugliese (as Nagra's antagonist) and they seem to have put everything they could think of into it. There's a character with a hidden illness, a paternity twist, a romantic triangle, and a behind-the-scenes TV documentary that threads its way through the movie.
There's also the alpha presence of Mickey Rourke as an avuncular, foppish gym manager and cornerman who wears sunglasses on his head and carries a small dog. (His character is more-or-less doubled by another cornerman, the grizzled but less foppish Michael Harrity). And, representing the female gender, Janel Parrish (from the American teen series, Pretty Little Liars) does double-duty as a crusading lawyer and as Nagra's romantic interest.
The presence of the American talent goes hand-in-hand with a commercial strategy of trying to "Americanize" the story, with the presence of American flags and speeches about what a patriotic American Nagra is. You want to give the movie some slack, given the demands of international film financing. But a brief appearance before the end credits of the real Nagra, wearing a white robe with a red "Canada" printed on the back, creates some serious cognitive dissonance.
As Nagra, the actor Prem Singh, is smoothly handsome and mild-spoken. He first appears on camera in an "interview," which is later revealed as the sports documentary within the movie.
An early scene sees him in a locker room staring glumly at a TV, replaying a moment of humiliation when, as an aspiring Olympic soccer player, he let down his team by getting tossed from the game for fighting on the pitch. Later, after being chastised by his uncle, he goes to temple to pray. Because he's a nice guy deep-down, he stops to help a woman (Parrish) whose car has stalled, and then tucks some money in the blanket of a sleeping homeless man, before wandering into a boxing gym.
Nagra's formal attire — tie, crested blazer and turban — enrages the club’s star boxer, named Brian Doyle (Pugliese) who immediately starts insulting the visitor.
Fists are thrown, the die is cast. The gym's coach and manager (Rourke) breaks up the melee and invites Nagra to return and take instruction. Cut to the training montage, first fight, and soon the kid's a contender before roaring crowds and a figure of controversy before media scrums.
Things progress quickly (too quickly to establish character's plausible behavior) and conveniently. The one-note irascible Doyle emerges as both Nagra's ring and romantic rival.
Non-boxing scenes, including judicial hearings and romantic glimmerings, are earnest and stilted and the young actors appear under-equipped to hit the big emotional beats (including the scene where Nagra yells at the mirror while threatening his beard with a pair of scissors.)
Otherwise, director Alister Grierson, an Australian with numerous television and feature credits, does a decent job with the crowd and lively ring action though it's not nearly enough to make us forget that Tiger is a movie struggling to punch way above its dramatic weight class.
Tiger. Directed by Alister Grierson. Written by Prem Singh and Michael Pugliese. Starring Prem Singh, Mickey O'Rourke, Michael Pugliese and Janel Parrish. Opens November 30 at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas cinema and the Cineplex Odeon Courtney Park Cinemas.