Monday, April 09, 2007

Film Review #94: The Challenge
Director: Tim Scanlon
Cast: Tim Scanlon, Ray Rinaldi, Jennie Russo

“I’m forty years old and I trained for six weeks before we filmed,” said Tim Scanlon, who stars as aging boxer Irish Pat Reilly in The Challenge. Scanlon also wrote, directed and edited this new feature film. “Then the first day of shooting I overdid it and had to go to the hospital. It’s very hard work. I underestimated what it takes. I swam in college and I thought swimming was the ultimate. Now it’s boxing.”

Scanlon, a Cazenovia native, spent eight years in Los Angeles working in films as a stuntman, actor, set dresser and production assistant. A decade ago he came home to start Scanman Productions. Now a West-sider, he’s made eight comedies built upon his Billy Mahoney character and four action films. Speaking before last Friday night’s premiere of his newest at Eastwood’s Palace Theater, Scanlon said he was hopeful for a good crowd.

“The Palace staff tells me I hold the record there for an indie premiere – in October 2005 I had 245 people come to Reynolds City.”

An informal head-count suggested last Friday’s enthusiastic audience was a tad larger. The Challenge screened as a fund-raiser for Ray Rinaldi’s two Syracuse Golden Gloves boxing gyms, where Rinaldi coaches kids and young adults. Rinaldi wants the kids to stay in school and out of trouble. He also mentors boxers with talent and discipline enough to make a start on the pro circuit. Rinaldi holds the New York State franchise – outside New York City’s metro area – for Golden Gloves. He plays himself in The Challenge, a tale that pits his system of clean fighting values against the organized underground world of “street fighting” with its big gambling bucks and no-rules slugfests.

The easy-going, courtly Rinaldi doesn’t think much of himself as an actor, but he greeted people in the lobby and then got on stage with two of his students for a boxing demonstration. He said, “Now this is the real Rocky!” about the first kid, dark-haired Rocky Sardo, fast and wiry. He said the second, willowy, auburn-haired Caroline Buerkle, already has some fight dates. Scanlon MC’ed these preliminaries, which included an Australian buddy who’s a comic and singer Kristen Hoffmann, who drove up from New York for this. Her song “Temple” closes the film.

The Challenge starts with an underground fight that’s set in the basement of The Palace, “closed for twenty-one years” for the story’s purposes, in which Reilly whips the strapping Jorge Medina – in real life an auto detailer at Bresee Chevrolet on Old Liverpool Road – and gets scouted by trainer Mitch O’Malley (Carl Barber). O’Malley tells Rinaldi he can get Reilly in shape for real boxing again. Rinaldi doubts it. He says Reilly’s “a nutcase,” but he welcomes his once gifted student to his gym on South Geddes – there’s even a flashback of the two sparring years ago. Reilly’s girlfriend Tammy (Jennie Russo, whom you might’ve seen at the Spaghetti Warehouse doing dinner theater murder mysteries) also objects to Reilly’s bar brawling –another flashback of a nasty skirmish at Pooches Bar in Solvay features a stray ear. After some testy goading and circling, Reilly and Rinaldi’s grandson – real life pro boxer Damian Rinaldi – resolve matters in a suitably instructive way.

Friday’s crowd did lots of cheering. There’s such unexpected but undeniable pleasure in seeing your own town up there on-screen that you yearn for more locally produced movies. Radio DJs Ron Bee and Becky Palmer from 104.7 and 107.9’s Marty and Shannon are up there on-screen. Scenes occur in the Coffee Pavilion, Traffik nightclub, Canastota’s Boxing Hall of Fame – even Eagle Newspapers’ newsroom. Scanlon’s also made a film worth seeing. He says he worked on choreographing that first fight scene over three weeks, with extra help on blocking the crowd from local filmmaker Ron Bonk. Fine camera work from Rick Stern, who drove from Ohio four times, is especially evident there, in the nightclub scene and during the final showdown fight – itself a 12-hour shoot.

The Challenge may screen at Jazz Central too, but Scanlon was already selling DVDs in lobby Friday night. This DVD is a good deal. Had the excellent trailer run on local network TV, Friday’s crowd would’ve been bigger. There’s also an interview with Scanlon and a wonderful commentary track with Scanlon and producer David Schmidt (who also plays Reilly’s shady street fighter manager).

The Challenge plus two earlier Scanlon features, Concrete Skies & Reynolds City, are available through This review appeared in the 4/05/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing films without regular theatrical runs in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.