There are a handful of actors who I so admire that I will watch anything they appeared in. Gene Hackman is one of those actors. I wouldn’t care if everyone said it was the worst movie ever made, if Gene Hackman is in it, there’s going to be something worth watching. So, that’s why on a recent trip to my favorite local used DVD shop, I picked up a copy of 1988’s Split Decisions. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it before, but it had Gene Hackman’s face on the cover, so I gave it a whirl.
Hackman plays Danny McGuinn, a New York cop who spends his free time coaching youngsters in the finer points of boxing. Over the years, he also trained his two boys, Ray (Jeff Fahey) and Eddie (Craig Sheffer). Eddie has a bright future ahead of him, with college and the Olympics on the horizon. Ray, however, skipped all that and has gone pro. This didn’t go over well with his old man, especially since things on the pro circuit are a bit shady. Wait a minute, you mean things aren’t always on the level in pro boxing? The movies have always told me that it’s’ a squeaky clean industry! I’m kidding, of course.
The ugly side of boxing really starts to take center stage as Ray’s manager informs him that he is to take a dive in his upcoming fight with Julian “The Snake” Pedroza (Eddie Velez). Ray, of course, has no intention of losing the fight. So, the crooks do more than just rough him up a bit, they chuck him out a window. Now, Eddie decides it is up to him to avenge his brother by taking down The Snake in the ring. However, he’s going to have to do it without his father in his corner.
So, back to that DVD box cover that caused me to pick up this film in the first place. Going by that you’d think this is a boxing movie starring Gene Hackman and Jennifer Beals In actuality, it’s a Craig Sheffer / Jeff Fahey boxing movie that happens to have Hackman and Beals in it. If you know anything about Sheffer and Fahey, then you know they aren’t exactly at the same acting level as Gene Hackman. Okay, okay, few actors are, but these guys tend to frequent direct-to-video fare, while Hackman is as A-list as they come. As for Jennifer Beals, she’s barely in the film. The only reason she is in the movie is so that there is a gorgeous woman around for Sheffer to kiss at the end of the flick. I assume she’s featured so prominently on the cover of the DVD so people will say, “Hey, it’s the Flashdance girl!”
So, having said all that, is this movie worth a watch purely because Hackman is in it? The answer is YES. The story is the standard sort of boxing pulp and is downright predictable in many moments, but Hackman certainly delivers. His part in this is very reminiscent of the tough-love coach he played in Hoosiers just two years earlier. He gives us heartfelt and inspiring moments, as well as the smack-some-sense-into-you moments. It’s Hackman being Hackman, and as I’ve said several times already, I’m always down for that.
Hackman’s presence, though, is primarily felt in the first and third acts. The middle of the film is very much a Sheffer / Fahey extravaganza, and that can be an acquired taste. Don’t get me wrong, these two actors often effectively deliver what is necessary for their films. However, their, shall we say, style is something very different from Hackman’s. The middle of this film, which has minimal involvement from Hackman, feels completely different from the bookends. Sheffer and Fahey don’t really mesh with each other as brothers, and they really don’t mesh with Hackman as their father.
Now, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with the final fight sequence. This is primarily because the villains are gleefully nasty. James Tolkan as a dirty promoter is especially effective. The fight that closes things out is bloody and brutal, though not shot terribly well. The action ends up being a bit choppy and lacks narrative. The folks behind the camera probably should’ve re-watched Rocky and Raging Bull a few times. We still get some decent ra-ra moments, though.
When all is said and done, Split Decisions is a film that certainly lives up to its name. My final opinion is definitely split. From both a storytelling and technical standpoint, the film is nothing extraordinary. However, if you are a Hackman completist, which why wouldn’t you be, it is worth a look for what Hackman delivers.