by Erin Free
Denzel Washington in The Hurricane
With The Hurricane, Norman Jewison's biopic of unjustly imprisoned boxer Reuben "Hurricane" Carter starring Denzel Washington, in the running for Oscars, FILMINK felt it was time to get in the ring with some of the all time classic boxing pictures. From the noir influenced fight flicks of the forties to the more upbeat efforts from the seventies and eighties, the boxing ring has been used as a metaphorical mirror to the human condition. The struggle for personal integrity, the sweating desperation to triumph and the contradiction of standing tall in a sport ravaged by corruption and cynical fight fixing are all themes explored with punishing incision by the best films in the boxing genre. The fight picture also boils actors and filmmakers down to a more primal level, letting them wallow in the mire of defeat and drink in the highs of victory. So lay your bets, take your seats ring side and lift your newspapers to catch the blood as we look at some of the best boxing films ever made.
BODY AND SOUL (1947)
Director Robert Rossen and writer Abraham Polonsky (who would later be blacklisted as a communist during the McCarthy witch hunts) expertly use the brutality of the boxing genre to savagely indict America's economically polarised capitalist society. John Garfield is an inherently decent working class boxer who is slowly corrupted as he gets more and more hung up on the cheap lure of money and fame, selling out to a gangster and compromising his very soul despite the subtle screams of his mother and girlfriend. The always prescient themes of exploitation and corruption spin the wheels of this down beat noir classic.
THE SET UP (1949)
Robert Ryan gives an incredibly touching performance as an over-the-hill boxer who's tagged as such a loser that his manager and trainer bet all their money against him, and don't even bother to tell him to throw the fight because they're so cock sure that he'll lose. This is a poetically seedy and dimly lit portrait of the sad fate waiting to king hit a boxer when he's hit the end of the line. Memorably shot in "real time" and absolutely damning in its portrayal of fight fans as a bunch of leering, seething, sadistic monsters jacked up on blood and the sick thrill of watching men reduced to animals.
Kirk Douglas can play an arsehole like nobody else, and in Champion he gets the role of a lifetime. Unlike a lot of boxing films which scrawl out the fighters as innocents corrupted from the outside, the protagonist in Champion is a mean spirited, back stabbing, money hungry bastard of a boxer who will happily sell his mind, body and soul to make it to the top of the fight game. In this vicious, cynical world everyone is hopelessly corrupt, and bad boy Douglas is the worst of the lot. Intensely powerful, and at times almost blackly comic in its relentless depiction of cruelty and soul dead heartlessness.
THE HARDER THEY FALL (1956)
This later effort from Champion director Mark Robson mainly takes place outside of the ring, tracking sports writer Humphrey Bogart (in his final role) as he takes the easy cash to fake-hype a second string boxer about to get the soul case beaten out of him by the current champ, so the fixers can tilt the betting field. Bogart brilliantly plays a flawed hero torn up over whether he can lead an innocent man to the slaughter. One of the biggest roundhouses to the side of the head that boxing has ever received, this shows the sport as criminally corrupt, soul destroying and basically despicable.
SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956)
Robert Wise, director of The Set Up, returns to the ring with this straight up, no bullshit biography of fighter Rocky Graziano, who rose from the grimy, crime racked streets of New York to become the middleweight champion of the world by using the smarts he worked up as a small time thug. Future golden boy Paul Newman is effortlessly brilliant in one of his earliest performances, snaring a role originally marked for James Dean. Tough and invigorating, this also stars Pier Angeli, Sal Mineo, and Steve McQueen and Robert Loggia in their debuts.
THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970)
James Earl Jones, the future voice of Darth Vadar, is pure dynamite in The Great White Hope, which marked only his second film appearance, and his first Oscar nomination. With brutish, unrelenting force, he plays Jack Jefferson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Jane Alexander is equally fiery in her debut performance as his white mistress. Director Martin Ritt masterfully steers this moving treatise on boxing, racism and personal relationships. Crackingly under rated stuff.
FAT CITY (1972)
Master director John Huston delivered probably his most under rated film with the mesmerising Fat City. Perhaps one of the seediest, most unrelentingly bleak films ever made, this opens the gates on the junkyard of boxing: the no-money arenas where has-beens, busted up ex-pros and never-gonna-be's slug it out for booze money and whatever cheap glory they can get. Stacy Keach is a sad old never-was who introduces young wannabe Jeff Bridges to the fight scene. Filled with extraordinary performances, pungent dialogue and an atmosphere so thick you can practically smell the blood and body odour, Fat City is an amazing tour through the human wreckage of the butt end of boxing.
The most famous boxing film of all time is also one of the best. Despite his reincarnation as a meathead, right wing superhero, Sylvester Stallone actually does some incredible work in his first major film role. Stallone wouldn't sell his punchy script unless he got to play Rocky, thus depriving studio choice James Caan of a great role and turning himself into an overnight superstar in the process. Rocky has it all: memorable set pieces, a stirring mix of gritty realism and cinematic flourish, a surprisingly tender romance between Stallone and Talia Shire, and a truly great bad guy in too-hip, too-cool reigning champ Apollo Creed, played with oozing charisma by Carl Weathers. Rocky is a full force classic, and even the sequels (particularly Rocky III) make the cut as quality fight flicks!
THE GREATEST (1977)
Not exactly the best fight film ever made, but it's pretty cool to watch the most exciting and charismatic boxer of all time playing himself in his own biopic! Muhammad Ali turns actor (he would later also appear in the much less successful slavery era epic Freedom Road with Kris Kristofferson), and though not all of his natural charm and bravado translate to the screen, he still makes for a superb boxing hero. While he was better served in the later documentary When We Were Kings, Ali still comes out with fists flying in this intriguing, if not totally successful, film. Also features Ernest Borgnine, Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones and Roger. E. Mosley (T.J from Magnum!) as famous foe Sonny Liston.
THE CHAMP (1979)
Okay, so Jon Voight's not exactly the most believable boxer of all time, Ricky Schroder is a colossal pain in the arse as his perpetually crying kid and Faye Dunaway (as his mother) is never totally convincing as someone who's actually given birth, but there's something undeniably moving and endearing about The Champ. Director Franco Zeffirelli mercilessly plays the audience as if it were a violin, pulling at the heart strings like a true master. Sentimental in the extreme, but there's just something emotional about seeing a hard man finally embrace his feelings and love his kid.
RAGING BULL (1980)
Maybe the best film ever made about boxing. Genius Martin Scorsese takes it right to the edge, and pushes leading man Robert De Niro into a performance of breathtaking power and in-your-face, manic force. As prizefighter Jake La Motta, De Niro catches lightning as a man of intense brutality and self hatred who sees the whole world as a boxing ring, and everyone as his enemy. La Motta's the kind of beast who would smash in his own face if he didn't have someone else to bludgeon and vent his frustrations upon. Scorsese's dazzling fight scenes, edited with slashing magnificence by Thelma Schoonmaker, are the best ever committed to film, and Raging Bull is an amazing mix of grace and savagery, realism and surrealism, and the sacred and the profane. Truly incredible.
TOUGH ENOUGH (1983)
Boxing gets taken into white trash territory with this amiable, good ol' boy comedy/drama about a would be country singer, played by Dennis Quaid with his usual funky charm and slightly off beat affability, who enters an amateur boxing competition to give his non-existent singing career a much needed push. But the thrill of winning, and the sweet smell of success, get too much for this sympathetic everyman, and he rides it all the way to the top. Though either derided or unheralded, Tough Enough is surprisingly entertaining, and makes a strong case for boxing as one of the truly populist sports.
As a boxer himself, perennial black sheep Mickey Rourke knows all about the kidney shots and knock downs that the industry has to offer, so it's no surprise that Homeboy, on which he collaborated on the script and was at one time slated to direct, comes stained with the same seedy eloquence that marked John Huston's similarly realistic Fat City. Rourke effectively plays a washed up, booze sodden pug who still swings away despite the blackouts and brain rattle, while being urged on by slick, big talking crook Christopher Walken. Though the script could use some tightening, Homeboy remains visually arresting and criminally over looked.
THE GREAT WHITE HYPE (1996)
Reigning sports movie king Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump) turned his pithy sensibilities onto the boxing world with his jazzy, delightfully cynical script for The Great White Hype. Playing a character obviously based on boxing promoter Don King, Samuel. L. Jackson burns with comic malevolence as an entrepreneur who starts to shake when his main fighter looks like going down the tubes, and is forced to create a new, gimmicky cash cow: a white champion, something as rare in the nineties as a fighter without a sponsorship deal. Washed up fighter turned punk rocker Peter Berg brings the laughs as his new protege in this very pointed, very funny stab at boxing in the nineties.
WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)
No smoke and mirrors here, just no holds barred, honest-to-god boxing heaven. After twenty three years of struggle, director Leon Gast finally brought his documentary about the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire to the screen. This is incredible filmmaking: Ali is at the height of his mesmeric fighting prowess and free flowing rap, Foreman is a fierce opponent, the tension in the politics is gripping, the comment from the sidelines (from the likes of Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Spike Lee) is salty and enlightening, and the carnival atmosphere before the fight (featuring performances from James Brown and B.B King) is a total rave. A real knockout. Excuse the pun.
THE BOXER (1998)
For once, the horrors outside the ring are more terrifying than the clash of gloves inside it in this gritty tale set amidst the terrorist bloodshed of Northern Ireland. Trimmed down and in cutting form, Daniel Day-Lewis is all hard bitten fighting spirit as a former boxer and IRA man just out of stir who rubs the men-with-guns the wrong way when he takes up with a prisoner's wife (Emily Watson) and tries to start up a non-partisan boxing club open to Protestants and Catholics. The Boxer ignores the corruption angle and strongly posits boxing as a tool for social change, and as a platform for community bonding.
TWENTY FOUR SEVEN (1999)
Debut director Shane Meadows worked wonders with this tough, unsentimental but incredibly warm film about an ex-fighter (played with ripping sincerity and bottomless gusto by Bob Hoskins) who opens up a boxing club in Britain's housing projects in an effort to keep the area's young lads off drugs, off the streets and out of the big house. Shot in grainy black-and-white, Twenty Four Seven is a beautiful picture of boxing in its purest form, working it as an honest, character building ladder out of the ghetto and onto a place where the grass at least has a chance to grow. ---Erin Free
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=176
originally posted: 03/09/00 18:26:28
last updated: 02/13/04 20:15:22