Not every sport works well on the big screen, and it’s not always the ones you think. Basketball? Surprisingly, not that cinematic. Golf? Actually pretty gripping, when done well. Soccer? Don’t make us laugh. But probably the king of big-screen sports has to be boxing. It’s as stripped down as we can get, in terms of games — two men (usually), in shorts, punching each other in the face.
It’s pretty hard to make boxing look uninteresting on screen, and some of the greatest filmmakers ever have done some of their finest work with the sport and, more importantly, with those who take part in it. David O. Russell’s drama “The Fighter” hits theaters today in limited release, and, as you’ll know from our review, we’re big fans: it’s as solid a boxing film as has been released in recent years, with some storming performances, and should figure heavily in awards season.
To celebrate its release, we’ve selected a handful of notable boxing pictures from through the ages. They swing from the masterpieces to… the Ron Shelton movies, but, if Russell’s film gives you a taste for the canvas, there are worse places to start. And no, “Kangaroo Jack” didn’t make the cut.
It’s fair to say that expectations were sky-high for “Ali.” Michael Mann was coming off what’s still the best film of his career, “The Insider,” and teaming with a giant movie star, Will Smith, who was taking on the most ambitious dramatic role to date, by embodying a true icon. And it’s fair to say that, for most, if not all, those expectations weren’t met — the film was mostly shut out of the Oscars, divided critics and audiences, and is somewhat forgotten, nearly a decade on. To some degree, it’s deserved — the film’s wildly overlong, attempting to take on too grand a scope of Ali’s life, and as a result never really gets to the heart of the man, or the politics surrounding him (the latter not helped by some weak supporting performances like Mario Van Peebles’s take on Malcolm X). But when it works, it sings — like the stunning opening sequence set to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” one of the best things Mann’s ever shot. It’s an uncharacteristically warm, vibrant film from the director, in no small part because of his star — Smith is genuinely tremendous, borrowing his own star charisma and tripling it for Ali — five minutes in, you forget that it’s Smith at all. If what surrounds him was as good as the central performance, or indeed, that given by Jamie Foxx, the film’d be a classic. [C+]
Likely to be one of, it not the most anti-boxing boxing movies ever made, Mark Robson’s “Champion” is also one that is weird, grim, but not all that compelling. Kirk Douglas stars as Midge Kelly, the “go-getting boxer” who started as a low-means hot head to a two-time title holder. If it wasn’t for Douglas’ charm (or maybe familiar face), Kelly would be utterly unlikable: he abandons his wife, screws over his brother and promoter, is cocky, schemes people who are scheming him, commits adultery, etc. Predictable it isn’t, but some of the more notable oddities are the breaks in tone, going from a film-noir character piece to a romantic comedy (complete with peppy score) to a kitchen-sink drama and back again. Successfully experimental? Well, no, either Robson didn’t have the skill to properly direct all of these different approaches or he had no idea that they had no place together in the same film. Despite all of this, the boxing matches are quite lively, but probably the most impressive scene involves Kelly being jumped by gambling sharks, leading to an 8-on-1 impromptu cage-match, complete with plenty of cheap shots and chairs to backs. Robson never again captures this intense energy, nor does he properly exploit this event to amplify or change Douglas’ demeanor. There’s so much potential for something with substance, but Robson’s always missing the boat or sleeping on the job. [C+]
“Cinderella Man” (2005)
All boxing film categorizing and critiquing aside, “Cinderella Man” had a hell of a time in theaters – audiences seemed to be genuinely allergic to the critical darling that stands as one of Russell Crowe’s best and certainly most genuinely heart-warming performances. An underdog picture helmed with Ron Howard’s adequate (and often clichéd) stylings, the story of James J. Braddock is gorgeously realized through the work of DoP Salvatore Totino and the music of Thomas Newman. Hardly breaking the traditional mold perhaps cemented for all time by “Rocky”, Howard and Crowe know how to tug at the heartstrings but luckily don’t telegraph most their punches. They are enormously aided by Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti (who should have walked away with a Best Supporting Oscar, if only for the “Sideways” snub the year prior). Also worth mentioning is a hugely underrated performance from Craig Bierko as Braddock’s boorish but charming opponent, the infamous Max Baer. “Cinderella Man” plays like an amalgam of other films, an old lovable mongrel dusting itself off for another prance around the living room – but hey, if it works, it works. [B+]
“Fat City” (1972)
Ew, you might need to take a shower after this scuzzy, down-and-out film by the late great John Huston, centering on a downtrodden and alcoholic boxer trying to make a go of it well past his prime. And only in the ‘70s is someone like this doughy and out of shape bum(Stacy Keach) able to be considered a capable boxer even in the jizz-stained backdoor boxing gym fighting scene. Downbeat and booze-sozzled, Billy Tully gets some inspiration in the gym when he meets 18-year-old hopeful Ernie Munger (a young Jeff Bridges), but his own personal demons and a destructive relationship with a fellow outcast and drunk (Susan Tyrrell, who was Oscar nominated for her performance) prevents him from achieving much of anything. Trying to make a real go of it, Munger fails, but perserves, eventually quitting boxing to take care of his pregnant girlfriend (Candy Clark). The bleak, sometimes hard-to-watch drama can certainly be depressing and it’s essentially a hardluck portrait of the painful, quicksand effect of self-discouragement and lack of self-belief, but it’s beautifully shot by three-time Academy Award winner Conrad L. Hall (“In Cold Blood,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “American Beauty”), was accepted at Cannes that year, and its gritty, matter-of-fact realism put Huston back on the map in the ‘70s proving that it wasn’t just the denim-y, bearded New Hollywood crowd making, grim, but electric slice-of-life stories. [A-]
“The Hurricane” (1999)
Boxing fans who knew the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter were surprised to learn that director Norman Jewison viewed the troubled middleweight as some sort of saint. While the film is centered around the very-dodgy case that sent Carter to prison for murder despite faulty evidence, Carter’s criminal background is so whitewashed that even the casual viewer would be hard-pressed to believe Carter was consistently at the wrong place at the wrong time. Jewison unfortunately takes his cues from the Bob Dylan song, a fantastic and furious eight-minute case for Carter’s innocence, and depicts an evil and racist justice system conspiring against a lone black athlete. Lost in this dubious film is a possible career-best performance by Denzel Washington. Though his character is just endlessly tortured until his cathartic retrial decades after imprisonment, Washington paints a stirring portrayal of a man who refuses to be vanquished, but who slowly withers away when each challenge to the legal system is met with demoralizing defeat. [C+]
“Killer’s Kiss” (1955)
Lost to pretty much all but film-noir experts and Kubrick obsessives, “Killer’s Kiss” is firmly a B-movie, a cheap crime flick about the romance between a fading boxer (Jamie Smith) and a dancer (Irene Kane), and her thuggish boss’s attempt to thwart them. It certainly shows the director’s potential, even at the ripe old age of 26 (this was his second film, but his debut “Fear and Desire” is still unreleased on DVD, and somewhat rarely screened) — in particular, the way he shoots the city, with an almost Fritz Lang-esque expressionist feel, is striking, and the boxing sequences are energetically filmed. It’s let down somewhat by the script, and by a flashback structure that robs the film of any tension, but it’s still worth tracking down, if only for the somewhat gonzo finale. It’s also worth noting as, essentially, the start of the idea of the boxer as the lead in a noir, carried all the way through to the likes of “Pulp Fiction”. [B+]
“Million Dollar Baby” (2004)
If you’ve somehow made it this far without finding out the second half twist to “Million Dollar Baby,” all we can say is stop reading and go rent the damn thing. But as the rest of you might recall, Clint Eastwood’s film did a pretty good job at the time of keeping the film’s secret under wraps. To be sure, anticipation for the film was high. The film marked the second on-screen pairing of Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, and their first since the acclaimed “Unforgiven.” Added into the mix was the young Oscar winner Hilary Swank, and the premise was certainly exciting. Eastwood played Frankie Dunn, an aging, grizzled boxing trainer who is hounded by Maggie, a not-so-fresh face from the Ozarks who wants to be trained. Frankie relents on two counts: she’s a woman and she’s 32, hardly a ripe age to be getting in the ring. But she wears him down and it turns out she works hard and is a natural. Pretty soon she’s boxing professionally, and the once-tossed-aside Frankie now has a new life and new respect in the gym he runs. Win/win right? It is, until tragedy strikes when Maggie takes a cheap shot from behind after a match has ended and slams her head into the corner stool, leaving her a quadriplegic. Frankie is devastated and blames himself for the mishap, while Maggie, bed bound, lapses into depression and has a leg amputated after an infection. Desperate to end her suffering, Maggie asks Frankie to help her die. And just like that the underdog boxing story becomes a euthanasia tale and not everyone liked that (and if you’re looking for strictly a boxing film, look elsewhere, as the ringside stuff is only about half the picture). And while Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis do their best to make the transition between the film’s two halves as seamless as possible, the turn is still distractingly abrupt, startling and manipulative. Thankfully, then, the performances sell it because the film — as much as it is about euthanasia — is also about the undeniable bond forged in sports between a trainer and athlete (or pitcher and catcher, etc., etc.) and for the characters in this film, they found a father and daughter in each other that their own families couldn’t provide. It’s wrenching, powerful stuff and full credit to Eastwood, the final decision isn’t played for politics, but played for heart, and we’ll be damned if it’s not moving as hell. [B+]
“Play It to the Bone” (1999)
In Ron Shelton’s boxing dramedy, Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson are aging fighters pitted against each other for one last payday in the ring. But these best friends will have to get there first, taking part in an unglamorous road trip that reveals their petty insecurities and tensions both professional and sexual. There‘s truth in the film‘s depiction of low-level athletes being forced to nickel-and-dime their way across the country just to compete, as well as the self-denial of the aging sportsman who refuses to go down. But “Play It to the Bone” is mostly vulgar and unpleasant, and Banderas and Harrelson never develop a believable rapport in between bad jokes and predictable road-movie clichés. And there’s especially the feeling that it would be a more interesting film without the female diversions, Lucy Liu and Shelton’s wife Lolita Davidovitch, who both play upsetting fantasy trollops. But once the participants get into the ring, the movie soars, as ‘Bone’ showcases some of the most realistic boxing action caught on film yet. It’s not exactly worth it slogging through the entire picture just to get to the superior action at the close, but catching the tail end on cable will be well worth it for boxing fans. [C-]
“Raging Bull” (1980)
Picture this: a young, spry Robert De Niro pitching a film about a home wrecking middleweight pugilist’s fall from grace to a bed-ridden, cocaine-addled Martin Scorsese. Though “Raging Bull” requires no introduction, the prior piece of film lore gives some insight into the kind of punishing process that gave birth to one of the greatest boxing pictures of all time and Scorsese’s towering achievement of the 1980s. As Jake La Motta, De Niro scales the heights of method acting, setting a standard that would be referenced time and time again when he gained an astounding 60-70 pounds to portray the overweight La Motta at the twilight of his career. Film geeks swoon at the mere mention of Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s meticulous editing. For Scorsese, the film was an anticipated exorcism and an unexpected resurrection. We, for one, are forever thankful for the latter. [A]
Before the glory, before the showmanship, before Sylvester Stallone became a household name, there was only this lightweight slice-of-life drama about a puncher who learns to be a boxer. Philadelphia scrapper Rocky Balboa rises from modest beginnings but doesn’t figure prominently in the local boxing scene until the love of a woman forces him to clean up his routine. Once he hooks up with crusty trainer Mickey (the unforgettable Burgess Meredith), he makes a play for the brass ring — a match with heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Lost in the glory of the first film is the fact that Rocky never develops a truly solid routine, running out to the ring, getting pummeled, and pummeling back. This didn’t stop the fans for demanding more, leading to a second, triumphant film followed by cartoon sequels (though “Rocky III,” directed by Stallone, features a daring series of match cuts in an opening montage that showcases the series’ best storytelling). Even though the franchise wrapped up in a sixth film with an oddly-wise, saintly Balboa, the first film remains a humble, well-shot character drama with affecting performances and its heart on its sleeve. [B+]
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956)
It almost seems that you can’t be a true movie star until you’ve stepped into the ring: Brando, De Niro, Russell Crowe, um, Michelle Rodriguez — they’ve all done it, and won plaudits for their performances. James Dean clearly knew this, and was meant to put on the shorts and gloves to play troubled boxing star Rocky Graziano, who started in the sport to make cash after fleeing juvenile crimes and deserting from the army. Unfortunately, Dean died before he could take on the role, and the responsibility fell to relative unknown Paul Newman, in what proved to be a star-making role. The film’s been rather superseded by later, more incisive films, and it never quite transcends its studio melodrama generic trappings, but it’s still an efficient, gripping potboiler, mostly thanks to the reliable hands at the helm, director Robert Wise and writer Ernest Lehmann, and to Newman’s gripping performance. The actor rarely got the plaudits of contemporaries like Brando, but proves here that from the beginning, he deserved to be mentioned among the greats. [B]
Honorable Mentions: We briefly referred to Michelle Rodriguez above, who broke through with Karyn Kusama’s drama “Girlfight,” and while the “Avatar” star’s performance is clearly the highlight, and Kusama appears to have squandered whatever promise she once showed, it’s a half-decent film. “The Champ,” meanwhile, is one of the most enduringly popular boxing flicks, in both versions, but they’re pretty sentimental, even if the ending is a true tearjerker. Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer” features unsurprisingly brilliant turns from Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson, but goes through some narrative turns that feel a little contrived.
There’s a selection of fine documentaries, most notably the Ali/Foreman film “When We Were Kings,” but Nanette Burnstein’s “On The Ropes,” James Toback’s “Tyson” and Ken Burns’ “Unforgivable Blackness” are all worth a watch. Robert Wise’s earlier boxing flick, “The Set-Up,” is another decent noir, while “The Harder They Fall” and “Gentleman Jim” are fairly similar. Walter Hill’s “Hard Times” is a visceral look at bare-knuckle boxing, while the similarly underground fight sequences in “Snatch” are some of Guy Ritchie’s best work.
There are also a few films that, while featuring boxers, don’t quite count — most notably “On The Waterfront,” in which Brando’s character is an ex-prize fighter. “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” is a charming comedy, although tonally a little odd, while Rod Lurie’s “Resurrecting the Champ” is, like most of Lurie’s work, something of a misfire but features one of the better recent performances from Samuel L. Jackson.
— Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Mark Zhuravsky, Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell