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Once Upon a Time in the Southwest

In The Hammer and Under the Same Moon, a middle-aged boxer and an illegal immigrant kid burn up Arizona highways and LA streets.

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Forget the 40 Year Old Virgin. How about the 40 Year Old Boxer with Self-Esteem Issues?

Jerry Ferro, the delightfully self-deprecating hero of The Hammer, has it all over that other comic loser. As portrayed by king-of-comeback-lines Adam Carolla, part-time-boxer-turned-carpenter and full-time schnook Jerry has better dialogue and funnier body language, plus a devastating left hand. If he can't knock you out with his wisecracks, he'll deliver a more painful punch line in the ring.

Trouble is, Jerry is seriously middle-age crazy. The movie opens on his fortieth birthday, another workday at his job as a journeyman construction worker who can't get any respect. He was a promising amateur fighter years ago but never followed through, and now fills in his off-hours teaching self-defense classes at the gym to San Fernando Valley residents like Lindsay (played by Heather Juergensen, who also produced). On the job site swinging a hammer, "The Hammer" (so named for his overhand knockout punch) and his Nicaraguan buddy Ozzie (Oswaldo Castillo) have nothing better to do than pull practical jokes on the foreman and get into trouble. He's a guy with a great future behind him.

Then, one day, fate comes knocking à la Rocky Balboa. Jerry's southpaw attack impresses wise old boxing coach Eddie Bell (Tom Quinn) enough to make him offer Jerry an Olympic tryout in the light heavyweight category alongside the gym's up-and-coming star, Robert Brown (Harold "House" Moore), who's everything Jerry is not: sleek, black, confident, and young. The idea is to have Jerry goad Robert through the Olympic qualifying matches and prevent the younger boxer from becoming complacent, but no one tells Jerry that. Convinced he has a shot at the Olympics at his advanced age, he takes the bait and devotes himself full-time to getting into competitive shape, all the while romancing the attractive Lindsay.

TV viewers with rotten taste will remember Carolla as cohost and cocreator, with Jimmy Kimmel, of The Man Show, the uproariously sexist Comedy Central sensation that gave the world the Juggies. None of that leering frat-boy humor in The Hammer. Well, maybe a little bit, but Carolla and screenwriter Kevin Hench (a frequent Carolla-Kimmel cohort) take care to make Jerry the Hammer the epitome of the likable underdog, a nice guy ashamed of his lack of accomplishment who only wants to prove to a woman like Lindsay that he's capable of going fifteen rounds in the big game of life. He takes her on a date to the La Brea Tar Pits, cracks jokes about expending his chi, engages in witty repartee with a fellow customer at Home Depot about construction techniques, and so on. Jerry deserves some kind of a break.

Meanwhile, with Ozzie as his inept corner man, he works his way up the Olympic ladder. The numerous fight sequences will never make anyone forget Raging Bull, and pound-for-pound he would probably be ranked a little below Hilary Swank, but Carolla scores early and often with a flurry of quips and putdowns. His mouth is a deadly weapon. If Jerry weren't already a fistic practitioner he'd get his nose freshly broken every day. In the press notes, director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein) admits: "As a gay non-jock, I was not everyone's first choice to direct this film." Give that man points for candor. It's really Carolla and Hench's Mensch Show, a perfect time-waster for one of those long, unemployed recession afternoons at the multiplex.

Hit the Road, Joven

Patricia Riggen's drama Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) inhabits roughly the same emotional territory as The Hammer and the two pics even intersect geographically a bit. But where Jerry Ferro's quest smirks like a sitcom, the corrido of nine-year-old Carlitos tiptoes the line between tragedy and hope and never loses its balance in its account of life and luck in the US-Mexican borderlands.

Ms. Riggen, a Guadalajara native who worked in Mexican TV before moving to New York to make documentaries for HBO and others, specializes in socially centered projects. Under the Same Moon certainly fits the profile, and the screenplay by TV writer Ligiah Villalobos gives its multitude of characters plenty of room to roam its turf, the always-dangerous frontera. But the obvious star of the show is Adrián Alonso, who plays Carlitos. At thirteen he's already a master of pathos.

Left behind in a Mexican town with his grandmother while his illegal immigrant mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo) labors as a housemaid for a Cruella de Vil-style employer al otro lado in LA, little Carlitos displays impressive determination in taking care of himself. At his gofer job for the local coyote, Doña Carmen (Carmen Salinas), Carlitos learns that a visiting Chicano husband and wife are willing to take a child across the border for a price. This knowledge comes in handy when the abuelita dies in her sleep, leaving Carlitos alone and pining for his mom. He resolves to cross over on his own, and his long trek — for all its resemblance to the type of Walt Disney animal yarn in which a puppy somehow crosses a continent through a series of lucky accidents — gives writer Villalobos and director Riggen a chance to sketch in the realities of the border, one of the saddest regions of North America as well as one of the richest in legend.

Carlitos has some scary scrapes in and around Juarez/El Paso, Tucson, and points West, including run-ins with a speed-freak drifter, pimps and hos, a hustler named Paco, a crew of vegetable pickers, a kindly woman named Reyna who runs a kitchen for illegals (María Rojo), his own long-lost father Oscar (who should have stayed lost), and another wandering vagabond, Enrique (Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez), the archetypal grumpy guy who warms to the task of befriending the young protagonist on his journey.

Once in a while Carlitos and Enrique have some fun on the road, like the time they hitch a ride with the tour bus of famed norteño musicians Los Tigres del Norte, who naturally favor them with a song, appropriately "La Frontera sin Miedo." Throughout, Carlitos' pluck and quick-wittedness serve him well. He's only a kid, but something in his face convinces us he can handle just about anything life throws at him. He'll probably end up a US Senator.

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