Aug 2, 2006 at 12:00 am

If there's one thing to applaud about this exceedingly violent and uneven arthouse-wannabe thriller — and there is only one thing — it's that Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. get totally freak-deaky.

Mirren, who has shed her oh-so-English "thea-tah" persona to play Rose, is a killer for hire. Gooding is Mikey, who Rose raised after his mom died when he was 7. Now grown up, he's Rose's partner in crime, and, get this, her lover.

And boy do these two go at it. Bravo to first-time director Lee Daniels for putting white and black lovers on screen, doing the nasty like they invented it. It rarely happens, and rarely so raw, so unapologetic, and with such gusto.

The May-December aspect of their union is, unfortunately, more icky than exotic. Yes, it's nice to see a younger man (Gooding is 38) paired with an older woman (Mirren is 61), as opposed to the Hollywood-typical geezer-and-babe couples. But what good is all that taboo-busting when Daniels and newbie screenwriter William Lipz lend a creepy Woody Allen/Soon-Yi vibe to the relationship? She basically raised him and now they're bumpin' uglies? That's just sick.

This flick, however, is meant to shock, and the filmmakers go overboard. Where's the subtlety? Everything — sex, killing, villainy and relationships — is completely overblown.

Both stars do their best with what they're given. Gooding even manages to turn off his cute-and-charming shtick for a bit, but the story is so inane, his is a losing battle.

Rose is dying of cancer and suddenly goes soft during a contracted killing. Cold-blooded mobster Clayton (Stephen Dorff) has ordered a hit on his wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), but Rose can't go through with it when she discovers the woman is pregnant and, as plot would have it, in labor. So Rose delivers the baby with impossible quickness. Then she decides to take them in. Never mind that daddy won't be happy to learn mom and baby are safe and sound — under Rose and Mikey's protection.

Thus begins Shadowboxer's idiotic "odd foursome" phase. Filmmaker Daniels makes much of the killer-by-night, Mr. Mom-by-day scenario. While Rose and Vickie are home making nicey-nice with baby, Mikey's out spilling blood to keep food on the table and OxyContin in Rose's medicine cabinet. Then Mickey gets domestic; flash forward to years later, when we see him doing chores and driving the kid to school between his brutal killing gigs.

There's more wince-worthiness in Shadowboxer (including the scene where a guy gets a pool cue shoved up his ass).

And Daniels doesn't know where to stop with the style, either. Between the stomach-churning violence, he's too heavy-handed with the lighting and special effects. He even lends a glowing magical elfin quality to a sex scene in a forest, like something ripped from Peter Jackson's playbook. As much as Daniels attempts to make parts of the movie look like outtakes from an Enya video, and as far as he tries to push taboos, Shadowboxer is still a raging stink bomb.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].