Ding Ding! This week sees round one of an upcoming flurry of boxing-related movies, with the arrival of “Southpaw” (read our review). Several years in development and once set to star Eminem in the lead role, the film arrives in theaters under the direction of Antoine Fuqua, and with a once-more-transformed Jake Gyllenhaal as the once-great fighter attempting to win back his daughter after the death of his beloved wife. Not long after, we’ll have some new contenders, including Ryan Coogler’s hotly-anticipated “Rocky” spin-off “Creed” starring Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller vehicle “Bleed For This,” and the Robert De Niro and Edgar Ramirez flick “Hands Of Stone.”
Together with the recent blockbuster Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight, boxing is definitely having a moment again, but then that’s nothing new: it’s always been one of the most popular sports to focus a movie around. The matches alone are far more cinematic than, say, golf or tennis, while the darker underbelly has always lent itself well to the background of crime or film noir pictures too. So, with “Southpaw” in theaters now, we’ve stepped back in the ring to examine twenty of the greatest pugilistic, punch-heavy boxing movies of all time. Sure, one more blow might kill us, but we don’t know how to do anything else. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.
Michael Mann followed up what still remains the best film of his career, “The Insider,” with a highly anticipated biopic of the most famous boxer our world has ever known, and ultimately failed to truly grasp Muhammad Ali‘s unparalleled persona. The film was never the Oscar hopeful it proposed to be, ended up dividing both critics and audiences, and is generally regarded as a middling Mann affair next to the director’s greater works. Considering how the film’s wildly overlong and overly ambitious scope of Ali’s life never allows genuine insight into the heart of the man outside the ring, or the politics surrounding him, it’s not all that surprising. But when it works, it dances like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It’s mostly due to Will Smith, who comes off as the only person able to carry the project’s ambition all the way to the end, delivering one of his most impressive performances to date. Then there’s the stunning opening sequence set to Sam Cooke‘s “Bring It On Home To Me,” one of the best things Mann’s ever shot. Despite its flaws, “Ali” is still an uncharacteristically warm and vibrant film from the director, and the greatest showcase for Smith’s buried talents, making it a no-brainer for fans of the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay.
“Body and Soul” (1947)
The corruption that follows fame and success into the boxing ring reaches great artistic heights in Robert Rossen‘s 1947 classic “Body and Soul.” John Garfield was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Charlie Davis, a talented fighter who goes against his mother’s wishes (Anne Revere, exuding a magnetic timelessness through her stoic performance), and becomes a prizefighting champion. Charlie alienates the people who care about him the most while sinking deeper into the pockets of shady racketeers, and gradually begins to realize that his calling in life has eroded his humanity. Meanwhile, the fortitude displayed by Rossen’s camera, Abraham Polonsky‘s screenplay, the ensemble performances, and Robert Parish‘s Oscar-winning editing — every close up is a meticulously-timed jab to the heart — build up towards a cathartic climax unlike any seen in boxing films, before or since. Garfield’s expression after that final fight is devastating stuff, where the titular ‘soul’ has that “pure cinema” vibe of palpable transcendence. Widely considered to be the first truly great film about boxing, almost 70 years later “Body and Soul” comes off charismatically old fashioned but eternally emotive in its core, and an unforgettable cinematic experience.
“The Boxer” (1997)
In Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer,” we get the dark and impossibly gloomy side of the Irish Dream, where the land of opportunity becomes the ropey confines of a boxing ring. It’s the third collaboration between Sheridan and heavyweight champion of the acting world Daniel Day-Lewis, dangling at the shoelaces of “My Left Foot” and “In The Name Of The Father,” and thanks to this, it’s more often than not swept under the mat. Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) is released from prison after a 14-year sentence, and tries to assimilate back into the everyday by managing a boxing gym. Most of the story is focused on his relationship with Maggie (Emily Watson), and the air is denser with instability caused by British-Irish relations than sweat from competitive bouts. But, there are enough gritty boxing scenes and one hell of an understated Day-Lewis performance to make the film eligible for our purposes. It’s not for nothing that UFC presenter and boxing aficionado Joe Rogan calls Day-Lewis’ performance the best he’s ever seen of an actor playing a boxer. 1997 was the year of “Titanic,” which practically made every other movie released in its vicinity an underdog, but for its realism and a particularly gut-punching politicized metaphor of boxing, the years should’ve been kinder to this one.
Likely to be one of, if not the, most anti-boxing boxing movie ever made, Mark Robson‘s “Champion” is also one that is weird, grim, and (in stark contrast to “Body And Soul“) somewhat dated. Kirk Douglas is 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’ Oscar-nominated charms and talents, Kelly would be an utterly unlikable antihero: he abandons his wife, screws over his brother and promoter, is cocky, schemes people who are scheming him, commits adultery, and so on. No one could fault it for being predictable, but it’s odd in a distracting kind of way; breaking in tone, going from a film-noir character piece to a romantic comedy to a kitchen-sink drama and back again. 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. Yet, it’s here for a reason. The boxing matches are exceptionally lively considering the context, and 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-on-backs action. 1949 would see another boxing film that’s featured here do practically everything better, but for diehard boxing nuts and fans of Kirk Douglas, “Champion” is still worth the time.
“Cinderella Man” (2005)
By the time the 21st century rolled in, audiences had seen enough terrible-to-average boxing films to be hyper-aware of all the categories, critiques, and cliches that can plague the sub-genre. Take Ron Howard‘s “Cinderella Man,” and the horrendous beating it got in theaters, as the perfect example. Audiences seemed to be somewhat allergic to the mostly well-reviewed picture that stands as one of Russell Crowe’s greatest and most genuinely heart-warming performances, with the film making a fraction of the previous Howard/Crowe team-up “A Beautiful Mind.” That makes it as much an underdog as its working-class hero, Depression-era fighter James Braddock. Helmed with Howard’s adequate (yet, undeniably, clichéd) stylings, the story is gorgeously rendered through the work of DP Salvatore Totino, and Thomas Newman‘s soulful score. Scarcely breaking the traditional mold cemented for all time by “Rocky,” Howard and Crowe tug at the heartstrings but, fortunately, don’t telegraph most of their punches. What adds further credit to the picture is the tremendously strong supporting performances by Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti (who picked up an Oscar nod), and the hugely underrated performance from Craig Bierko as Braddock’s boorish but charming opponent, Max Baer. Sure, “Cinderella Man” plays out like an amalgamation of a number of more original boxing flicks, but if seen as an ode, its more positive attributes shine through.
“Fat City” (1972)
Listen to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” an original song that bookends “Fat City,” and you’ll get how touching, and hopelessly human, John Huston’s late masterwork really is. Set in Stockton, California, Huston’s picture is a slice of Americana peppered with authentic images and encounters of the blue-collared and the unemployed, ending with a final elliptical point of view; life passes you by, while you sit on a barstool, watching it from a distance, plastered. It’s the story of two boxers whose only similarity is their weight class; Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) is almost 30 years old and past his prime; nowadays he can’t punch his way out of a wet paper bag without pulling a muscle. When he meets eighteen-year-old Ernie (Jeff Bridges) he immediately recognizes the potential in him. Ernie gives it a shot at boxing with Tully’s ex-coach Ruben (Nicholas Colastano), while Billy shacks up with boozy slooze Oma (Susan Tyrell). Though it’s clear that “Fat City” is more than just a straight-up boxing film, not since “The Set-Up” was there such a complete and competent portrait of the who’s who in the boxing world. In Keach and the Oscar-nominated Tyrell you have two dynamic acting forces colliding in glorious ways, and Bridges is just about the only one who can make someone like Ernie interesting and sympathetic. After a few box-office bombs, Huston bounced back with “Fat City,” yet the picture is hardly ever counted beside his more popular works. We’d go against the grain and count it as one of his best, and a minor classic of the boxing genre too.
“The Fighter” (2010)
We’ve yet to see how successful the upcoming string of boxing films will be this year and the next, but one thing’s for sure: the first boxing film they’ll be compared to is the last great one, David O. Russell‘s “The Fighter.” Russell’s penchant for directing actors to critical glory is cemented in this one, but it’s ironic that of the three actors nominated for an Oscar none of them are the boxer himself, Mark Wahlberg‘s quiet welterweight Micky Ward. Managed by his chain-smoking mother Alice (Melissa Leo, Oscar!), trained by his crackhead brother Dicky (Christian Bale, Oscar!), and supported by a gamut of sisters and a token love interest, Charlene (Amy Adams, no Oscar, but a nomination!), Micky reaches a point where he must choose his profession over his own family, who turn up to be more of a detriment. When it comes to family bonds and boxing films, it doesn’t get much grittier than “The Fighter.” With a cracker of a screenplay full of comedic highlights, Russell’s entertaining and energetic flow, and a jaw-dropping performance by Bale, this true story is realized with plenty of sizzle and lots of heart to spare.
“Gentleman Jim” (1942)
Like every sport, boxing has evolved in tremendous fashion throughout the 20th century, but now that we’re well in the 21st, that bygone era of the earliest years of boxing as sport in the late 1890s has all but completely dispersed from culture and memory. Perhaps it’s our nostalgia, then, that beckoned to us to include Raoul Walsh‘s “Gentleman Jim,” an old-fashioned Hollywood relic starring one of the most then-talked about movie stars in the title role: the enigmatic Errol Flynn. Based on James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett’s autobiography, this is about a time when boxing was illegal, and world champions — like John L. Sullivan, wonderfully portrayed in the film by Ward Bond — were those mustachioed burly Irishmen who comically circled their fists and ended all their sentences with “see?” Corbett brought sophistication to the sport, and introduced calculated science over brute strength. Though the character got a Hollywood polish for the screen version and much of the dialogue feels lumbered, today we watch “Gentleman Jim” for one of Flynn’s greatest performances (a personal favorite of his), Walsh’s wistful handling of the honor found in the sport, and an impossibly touching final scene that still brings tears to the eye, over 70 years later.
As far as female-centric boxing films go, “Girlfight” usually takes a backseat to “Million Dollar Baby.” It’s a film made 4 years earlier, which highlights the gritty realism of women struggling against the odds in a male-dominated sport, and doesn’t go to the melodramatic places that Eastwood’s film does. A remarkably raw feature debut by writer-director Karyn Kusama, and one of the fiercest acting debuts of recent times in the form, shape, and skill of Michelle Rodriguez, “Girlfight” is the story of Diana Guzman, a troubled teen who gets into school fights with bitchy girls and ends up training to become a professional boxer. She achieves things the men around her, including an abusive father and a reluctant coach, never thought possible for a woman. Coming years before Hilary Swank laced her gloves, Rodriguez, thanks to the independent nature of her own film, didn’t reach Swank’s Oscar glory, but she rightly won enough indie awards to stuff a duffle bag with.
“Hard Times” (1975)
Walter Hill‘s directorial debut is perhaps more welterweight than heavyweight, but its Western-style take on bare-knuckle street boxing makes “Hard Times” one of the more entertaining films in the genre. Starring one of cinema’s legendary leading men who can paint a thousand pictures with a single word, Charles Bronson is Chaney, a mysterious down-on-his-luck drifter who stumbles upon the self-proclaimed “Napoleon of Southern sports,” Speed (James Coburn), who arranges bare-knuckled street contests for hard cash. Chaney knocks out his first opponent with a single punch, and Speed’s eyes light up with dollar signs. The two join forces with Speed’s old pseudo-cutman, Poe (Strother Martin), and start bulldozing through the competition. With Martin’s eloquent cadence, Coburn’s fast-talking baritone, and Bronson’s casual nigh-expressionless demeanor a charismatic trifecta is made that transcends all contexts. Effortlessly watchable at a brisk 75 minutes, “Hard Times” is a world full of loose morals, bruised skin, and dirty corners, where money hangs over every soul like the sword of Damocles and hits are felt with every punch. Add to that Hill’s subtle eye for middle American slice-of-hard-life, and you’ve got yourself a brilliant boxing flick.
“The Harder They Fall” (1956)
Forever destined to be remembered as the film that features Humphrey Bogart‘s final screen performance, “The Harder They Fall” has plenty to offer besides an intimidatingly magnetic Bogie in the twilight of his legendary career. For one, there’s a deliciously villainous performance by Rod Steiger as the bent boxing promoter Nick Benko, who hires Bogart’s journalist Eddie Willis to write about his newest prize fighter, Argentine soft giant Toro (Mike Lane, a professional wrestler delivering a heartfelt performance here). Then there’s the memorable turns by real-life boxers, Max Baer (yes, the same Baer who famously went down to James “Cinderella Man” Braddock) and Jersey Joe Walcott. Most of all, though, “The Harder They Fall” remains one the greatest film noir boxing films to address the darker elements that have haunted the sport, in the form of fight fixing. Director Mark Robson‘s deft appreciation of this sleazy side is decently complemented by Philip Yordan‘s biting screenplay, but it all, ultimately, comes back to the face of film noir, Humphrey Bogart. Battling cancer off-screen as sternly as he battles boxing corruption on-screen, Bogart is visibly ailing but still manages to deliver a hair-raising turn, full of the bottled zest that made him such a giant of the screen.
“The Hurricane” (1999)
Boxing fans who knew the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter were stirred up when they learned that director Norman Jewison practically deified the troubled middleweight. The film is centered around the highly questionable case that sent Carter to prison for murder despite faulty evidence, but Carter’s real-life 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. This is mostly due to Jewison seemingly taking cues from the infamous Bob Dylan song (which is an undoubtedly fantastic and furious eight-minute case for Carter’s innocence), and depicts an evil and racist justice system conspiring against a lone black athlete a bit too bluntly. This makes “The Hurricane” a simplistic picture, but lost in these flaws is a possible career-best performance by Denzel Washington. And therein lies the main reason we’re still talking about it. It’s one of those rare boxing films that’s more court-case-prison drama than bouting in the ring, but through Washington’s titanic portrayal, the audience feels the struggles of a prizefighter beyond the ropes of his comfort zone, and reminds us all that sometimes a boxer’s greatest battle is fought outside the ring.
“Killer’s Kiss” (1955)
Forgotten by pretty much everyone except film noir experts and Stanley Kubrick obsessives, “Killer’s Kiss,” the director’s second feature, is firmly B-movie material; a crude crime flick about the romance between a fading boxer (Jamie Smith) and a dancer (Irene Kane), and her thuggish boss’ attempts to thwart them. It’s naturally buried underneath the director’s later and infinitely better pictures, the inclusion as an extra on Criterion’s release of “The Killing” speaks volumes towards its place in the halls of cinema, but it certainly shows the director’s potential. Even at the ripe old age of 26, and with only one other feature under his belt (1953’s “Fear and Desire“), Kubrick’s majesty is glimpsed. 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 one of the earliest films that promoted the idea of the boxer as a lead in a film noir, which had ripple effects all the way through to the likes of “Pulp Fiction” and, from the looks of it, even “Southpaw.”
“Million Dollar Baby” (2004)
If you’ve somehow made it this far without finding out the second half twist to Clint Eastwood‘s “Million Dollar Baby,” stop reading and go watch it because here be spoilers. The film marked the second on-screen pairing of Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, and their first since the acclaimed “Unforgiven.” Stirring the anticipation pot was the young Oscar winner Hilary Swank, and an exciting premise; Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a grizzled boxing trainer who is hounded by Swank’s 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 pretty soon she’s boxing professionally, until tragedy strikes and Maggie is left a quadriplegic. Never has a boxing film taken such an abrupt turn in its halfway mark, when, just like that, an underdog boxing story becomes a euthanasia parable. Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis do their best to make the transition smooth, but it’s nevertheless 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. 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.
“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 bedridden, cocaine-addled, Martin Scorsese. Though “Raging Bull” requires no introduction, this piece of film lore sheds some insight into the kind of punishing process that gave birth to 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 after 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, and the ferocious supporting performances by Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty propel the picture to even greater heights. One of the most rewatchable Scorsese films from the director’s catalogue, it’s impossible not to be swept by the film’s furiously cinematic nature on every sitting. The film was an anticipated exorcism and an unexpected resurrection for the great maestro, and we, for one, are forever thankful for the latter.
“Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962)
Another tale of the tape that measures the emotional dimensions of the manager-fighter relationship is this 1962 boxing ballad. Rod Sterling rose to fame after writing the teleplay, and whether the TV version with Jack Palance is better than the later feature film Ralph Nelson directed with Anthony Quinn is a debate that has an infinite number of rounds. Whatever your result, “Requiem For A Heavyweight” is a vigorously alive display of what the sport does to your soul and body. Quinn is sensational in the way he breathes life into the staggering, mumbling, Quasimodo of boxing, Luis “The Mountain” Rivera. He tries to assimilate into society with the help of cut man Army (Mickey Rooney) and social worker Grace (Julie Harris), much to the chagrin of his manager and best friend Maish (Jackie Gleeson) who is deep in the pockets of local gangster Ma Greeney (Madame Spivy). Apart from having a gangster squad led by a woman in the 1960s (seriously, kudos!), Nelson’s version most crucially differs from the TV version in the ending; a riveting display of broken friendship and hair-raising humiliation. The entire ensemble is sharp as razors, Quinn and Gleeson most especially, and the film is famous for its opening which features one Cassius Clay, playing himself before he became Muhammad Ali. It flies under the radar these days, but we urge you to seek it out.
“Resurrecting The Champ” (2007)
General critical consensus on Rod Lurie‘s film about the redemption of a boxing writer is barely favorable, and it had a tough time during its short theatrical run despite the two stars attached in the lead roles. But we’re propping it up to a standard that some may view with a raised eyebrow for a couple of reasons. Josh Hartnett plays sports journalist Erik Kernan whose pieces are being buried by his editor at The Denver Post for being too boring. One night he meets “The Champ” aka Bob Satterfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a homeless man who was once third in the world in heavyweight boxing. Or, so he says. For those who haven’t seen it, now’s a good time to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled. Once Kernan’s article is published, it’s revealed that The Champ is a lesser-known boxer impersonating Satterfield. “Resurrecting The Champ” is a boxing film unlike many in that it focuses on the journalism of boxing more than the bouts, and the failures of the sport who spilled no ink. Those who successfully dodge all the sappy father-son messages will get to enjoy a solid Sam Jackson performance, and a fairly decent flick all around.
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 inimitable 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 more and more cartoonish sequels (though, it must be noted, “Rocky III” is directed by Stallone himself and features a daring series of match cuts in an opening montage that showcases the series’ best storytelling). Revived in 2006 with the solid “Rocky Balboa,” the first film still remains the most humble of the franchise; a well-shot and well-performed character drama that’s become a bonafide classic of the sporting genre, wearing its heart on its sleeve like a badge of honor.
“The Set-Up” (1949)
Robert Wise directed this condensed, unsung, and compelling story of Bill “Stoker” Thompson. Robert Ryan stars as Stoker, a man “always one punch away” from winning, but he’s been on such a cooler of late, his own manager Tiny (George Tobias) ensures the local gangsters that he’ll go down in the second round of his next match without even preparing Stoker for it. Things get complicated and incredibly intense when our downtrodden fighter becomes determined to beat his next opponent, no matter what. What makes “The Set-Up” such a fantastic boxing film is that it manages to be all about the action in the ring and an emotional portrayal of a loving relationship, all in an super-economical 72 minutes. Here we have one of the most rounded and grounded boxing stories, told in incredibly effective, ridiculously immersive, real time. Whether it’s inside the sweat-stained locker rooms, ringside with managers chewing their faces off, or among the zoo-like atmosphere of a maddening general public, Wise’s camera pans, zooms, glides, and cuts its way across the boxing milieu in splendidly efficient fashion. Milton Krasner’s cinematography (that bagged him an award in Cannes) cakes the entire picture in stunning film noir aesthetics, while Ryan’s central performance is nuanced far ahead of its time.
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956)
It almost seems like you can’t be a true movie star until you’ve stepped into the ring, specifically a male movie star: Douglas, De Niro, Russell Crowe, now Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael B. Jordan — they’ve all either done it or are doing it, and most are met with plaudits for their performances. James Dean must’ve figured this out, ’cause he was meant to put on the shorts and gloves in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” 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 melodramatic and generic studio trappings, but it’s still an efficient, gripping potboiler, mostly thanks to the reliable hands at the helm; director Robert Wise (two for two when it comes to boxing films), writer Ernest Lehmann, and Newman’s gripping performance. The actor didn’t always get the plaudits of more Method-y contemporaries like Brando, but proves here that from the beginning, he deserved to be mentioned among the greats.
Honorable Mentions: We included plenty, but what did we not have room for? Well, among others, both versions of father/son weepie “The Champ,” the first the 1931 film starring Wallace Beery, the second with Jon Voight in 1979. There’s also “City For Conquest” with James Cagney and Ann Sheridan, and 1937’s “Kid Galahad” with Edward G. Robinson and the musical Elvis Presley-starring remake of the same name from 1962.
And let’s not forget “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (later remade as “Heaven Can Wait”), 1946’s “The Killers,” John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (kind of…), Martin Ritt’s 1970 drama “The Great White Hope” and Reginald Hudlin’s 1990s response “The Great White Hype,” and Thai movie “Beautiful Boxer” about trangender boxer Parinya Charoenphol. And on the documentary front, there’s the great “When We Were Kings,” James Mangold’s “Tyson” and Frederick Wiseman’s 2010 film “Boxing Gym.” Anything else? Let us know in the comments.