Nick Sasso’s martial-artist-meets-pop-star romance is a hollow, muted, shabbily made affair.
Nick (Nick Sasso) is a bouncer. Once he was a Muay Thai boxer, a rising talent. Those days are long done. Now he’s drifting through life, lonely and purposeless. Nomi (Nomi Ruiz, lead singer of Jessica 6) is a pop star. She’s doing what she loves, and she’s aimless and lonely. When Nick rescues Nomi from a would-be rapist and loses his bouncing gig, she hires him as a bodyguard. Together, they travel the world and begin to fall for each other. But they’re very different people, with very different needs. Their future could be wonderful. But it’s an open question.
Haymaker means well. It deserves credit for casting Ruiz, a trans actor, as Nomi, a trans character. It deserves credit for making Nomi’s identity a key part of who she is without it being her sole point of characterization. She’s a dedicated, passionate musician who’s aiming to push her craft as far as she can. She’s got a loving relationship with her mother and adores her ailing grandmother. She’s not entirely clear of some bad actors from her past (chief among them horror legend Udo Kier) or the self-destruction that rides with them.
In a different film, with a different performance, Nomi could be a great character. Unfortunately, she’s in Haymaker. And Haymaker is a complete and total failure of a movie. At every turn Sasso – who directed, edited, served as the lead VFX artist and wrote Haymaker in addition to playing Nick – makes creative choices that range from ineffectual to self-defeating to well and truly flummoxing. The result is a dragged-out wisp of a picture that sternly consigns itself to cinematic oblivion.
Narratively and tonally, Haymaker moves at odd angles only to tie its own shoelaces together. The limited dialogue and frequent shots of Nick and Nomi in contemplation, coupled with occasional moments of intensely colored lighting from cinematographer Brent Johnson (Jezebel) recall the work of Nicolas Winding Refn.
But where Refn goes all in on the vibe, Sasso applies it inconsistently. Silence is followed by bursts of awkward, stilted conversation. The screen-dyeing colors share space with well-crafted but plain shots of the many places Nomi and Nick travel. Haymaker never quite reaches the level of saturation it needs to run on feeling and mood and doesn’t take the time to ground Nick or Nomi in enough character for them to move outside of its sensation-heavy moments.
At every turn Sasso – who directed, edited, served as the lead VFX artist and wrote Haymaker in addition to playing Nick – makes creative choices that range from ineffectual to self-defeating to well and truly flummoxing.
It doesn’t help that neither Sasso nor Ruiz plays their part well. Ruiz does have solid moments when Nomi is singing, drawing on her own experience as a musician to bring out her character’s charisma and love for her work, even as the film’s craft actively interferes with her performances. But when she isn’t on stage, Ruiz’s performance is halting and stiff. Sasso fares worse. He’s a competent but unexciting screen fighter, and the blandness of his action performance is exacerbated by Haymaker’s technical issues. He invariably delivers his dialogue flatly, and always seems aware of the camera.
Haymaker’s story wants to turn on the deep, fraught love that blossoms between Nomi and Nick. But Ruiz and Sasso have all the chemistry of a PowerPoint presentation about algae. Their relationship is as leadenly and wobblily performed as their individual work. A late-movie reunion after a period of separation does find a genuine spark between Ruiz and Sasso. But it’s very telling Nick and Nomi feel most alive as a couple during a sequence where they’re uncomfortable and aren’t sure how they feel about each other.
Sasso and Ruiz’s amateurish performances are all the more noticeable when contrasted with the solid work done by Haymaker’s supporting cast. Kier brings the sleaze and the slime to his brief appearance. Zoë Bell’s fight trainer suggests a complicated history just by the way she exchanges bows with Sasso. D.B. Sweeney (The Legend of Korra) radiates brotherly love. Veronica Falcón takes no guff as Nomi’s mother. They’re a fine ensemble, but their limited screen time means they can only bring so much to bear.
Haymaker’s sound design is its greatest failing, a piece of filmcraft executed so poorly that it becomes a stone albatross bound to the picture’s ankle. Nomi is a pop star. Her music should fill the clubs and stadiums where she performs like a wave making landfall. Nick is a martial artist. The blows he lands should be thunder. Nomi’s songs are barely audible. Nick’s Muay Thai is silent. Even with the volume cranked, everything in Haymaker sounds like it was recorded with a mic wrapped in IKEA blue sharks. It’s distancing, distracting and robs what should be the picture’s showstopper moments of any impact.
On top of its tonal garble, crummy lead performances and truly atrocious sound work, Haymaker is, at times, genuinely bizarre. When Nick has to get ready for a dinner date with Nomi, the picture suddenly shifts into bawdy raunch comedy as he goes about shaving all the hair from his body. When his bout with his rival arrives, Sasso repeatedly cuts to a black screen and back again, throwing the sequence’s rhythm for a loop. Just before the match commences, Sasso makes his most “hweh?”-inducing decision of all, a series of ominous close-ups on his rival’s tattoos, culminating in… a happy dog eating pizza. It’s an odd, odd, odd choice, memorable if not endearing.
Haymaker is a lousy movie. It falls flat on its face spends the rest of its long-feeling 83 minutes sampling the dirt. I wish it was better than it is, but as it stands, none of its blows land. Skip it.
Haymaker will be available on VOD January 29th.
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