Jake Gyllenhaal and his new muscles star are front and center in Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama “Southpaw,” which opens nationwide today. “Southpaw” is the first of several boxing films expected to come out in 2015. Other titles in the lineup include “Bleed for This,” starring Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, “Hands of Stone,” starring Edgar Ramirez and Robert De Niro, and Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” featuring Michael B. Jordan. With the next generation of talent stepping into the ring, what is it that makes boxing films so great?
In comparison to other sports, boxing suits the structure of cinema in more ways than one. Boxing films make up their own sub-genre, and the subject is often synonymous with the production of critically acclaimed works. Relying on formal elements to construct a relationship between the boxer, the ring and the film’s aesthetic, the directors use a contender’s quest for the title as a means to address a variety of social and personal issues, including the boxer’s fight against himself as he exchanges blows with the world around him. The reciprocal relationship between the individual and the society broadens the film’s scope, as the context and underlying themes comprise politics, class, race, gender and family dynamics. Below, Indiewire offers up some of the best boxing films that emanate these qualities.
Mark Wahlberg stars as “Irish” Micky Ward in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.” Based on a true story, it follows Micky’s transition from “a stepping stone” boxer into a world champion. “The Pride of Lowell, Massachusetts,” his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Cristian Bale), is a former boxing legend that turns into a crack-addict. Doing more harm than good, Dicky trains Micky as his mother poorly attempts to manage his career. Boxing is the medium O. Russell uses to address the complex family situation. He quickly establishes the link between the distinct boxing styles and the personalities of the two brothers. Micky’s introverted character parallels his tactical approach as an inside fighter, whereas Dicky’s strategy as an outside fighter mirrors his inability to confront reality and accept responsibility. From the opening street sequence, where Micky and Dicky stop traffic, to their ring entrance, which features a surprisingly emotional rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again on My Own,” O’ Russell familiarizes you with the brothers. The mundane visuals, subjective shots and industrial flavor add to the film’s everyday aesthetic. The boxing scenes are brightly lit and capture the essence of a televised broadcast. An HBO Documentary crew follows the brothers, filming what Dicky thinks is his “comeback,” but in actuality is an expose into his drug addiction. The deceiving documentary echoes O.Russell’s visual approach, as he unmasks the sports biopic to reveal a gritty family drama. By creating a familiar look, he distances the ring and emphasizes the complex family dynamic as the most important battle Micky has to fight.
Hailed by viewers and critics as a sensation, Robert De Niro delivers an unforgettable performance as Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” The film tracks the rise and fall of the middleweight boxer from the Bronx. Scorsese undresses LaMotta to his bare instincts and uses a critical lens to investigate masculine violence. LaMotta doesn’t know how to interact within the commercial society, so he simply acts, like a bull in a China closet. Scorsese portrays his public and domestic displays of violence as terrifying, but his violence in the ring as artistic. The lighting, lyrical track-ins, monochromatic camerawork and use of slow motion in the boxing sequences compose a dream-like and poetic atmosphere. LaMotta floats around the ring and compensates for his sexual insecurities and jealous paranoia with a form of rage that society deems acceptable. LaMotta pities himself as he revisits the outbursts that scared all those near and dear to him away, but the use of sound, which features animal noises and not articulated thoughts, proves he is hopelessly trapped by his instincts. Scorsese employs boxing to moralize society’s fascination with violence through its exposure to the unforeseen collateral damage, as LaMotta is both a champion and a wife-beater.
Winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Karyn Kusama’s directorial debut, “Girlfight,” follows the story of Diana (Michelle Rodriguez), a fearless girl searching for a way to make it though her dangerous environment. Set in Brooklyn, Diana’s life is subject to unfortunate circumstance. She lost her mother, lives in the projects and constantly fights at school. Unaware of how to cope with her situation, she develops the persona of a walking volcano, capable of exploding at a moments notice. Diana starts to train at a boxing gym in hopes of channeling her frustrations. Through the sport, the film constructs a feminist undertone as Diana out toughs the macho society she lives in. Kusama creates a realistic aesthetic through gritty cinematography that complements the rugged, urban setting and Diana’s hard hitting personality. Diana rises to the challenge when the governing organization of amateur boxing permits women and men to fight one another. In the climatic match, Diana enters the ring and faces her boyfriend, Adrian. The sly reference to “Rocky” and Diana’s triumph over him does not only reverse gender roles, but it also redefines them. She goes head to head with the sport’s masculine nature and proves she is capable of knocking out anyone.
“Rocky” (John Avildsen, 1976)
The corny lines and the abundance of modern pop culture references often overshadow the qualities that make “Rocky” a triumphant film. Having seen his better days, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) receives a spontaneous opportunity to fight the undefeated world champion, Apollo Creed. Director John Avildsen creates an approachable aesthetic and a realistic look, as the camera stalks the lonely fighter through the decrepit and tired streets of Philadelphia. In the iconic stairway montage, it is clear that the urban surrounding is the real opponent. For the Italian Stallion, it is not just another meaningless match, but a chance to redefine the course of his life. The film is sentimental, arguing that the American dream is still alive. The motif of the American flag and the entrance of Apollo Creed dressed as Uncle Sam generates a political undertone. Avildsen carefully crafts the film’s civic discourse, as the democratic participation of boxing mirrors the nation’s political ideology. Relative to the time, the film offers moments of positive racial and gender representation, but its greatest achievement is reinstating a much-needed vigor within the discouraged American public. Coming off of Nixon and Vietnam, “Rocky” is a heroic tale that gives people a reason to keep fighting and making the most of every opportunity.
“The Hurricane” (Norman Jewison, 1999)
In Norman Jewison’s film, “The Hurricane,” Denzel Washington conjures up a performance that rivals his iconic role in “Malcolm X.” He plays the famous boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who is tragically framed for the murder of three people and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Jewison constructs dual story lines through a collection of vignettes from Carter’s life. The complex flashback structure allows Jewison to portray both the aggressive young fighter and the mature pacifist in the film’s foreground. Mirroring both his young and old personas, boxing teaches Carter self-defense and self-discipline, how to take a hit and how to throw a punch. In the context of the film’s racial undertones, the contrasting boxing lessons encompass both the passive and agreesive philosophies of the civil rights movement. The narrative structure bares resemblance to the love versus hate dynamic in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The film embellishes the recreation of Carter’s 1964 title match, claiming racism as the source of the judges’ scoring. Despite the factual distortion, Jewison uses the embellishments to his advantage, turning a complex tale of institutionalized racism into a boxing parable with what is right in one corner of the ring and what is wrong in the other.
Remaining consistent with his classic films, John Huston’s “Fat City” features his stereotypical underdog storyline. Set in Stockton, California, the film stars Stacy Keach as Tully and a young Jeff Bridges as Ernie. Tully is an aging boxer with only the failures of his past to reflect upon, whereas Ernie is a young man on the cusp of an equally hopeless path. The setting mirrors the characters’ bleak lives, as they are misfit dreamers stuck on the wrong side of a bustling town. Huston creates an honest film with lackluster visuals and a monotonous mood. Through the amateurish matches, where the boxers fight only to put cash in their pockets, and the cliché small talk taking place at the run down bar, Huston characterizes the town of Stockton to reflect the lives of the characters as they both reach a dead end. The film is based on boxers, but it has little to do with the inside of a ring. Although the two take a beating from their opponents, it is life that packs the meanest punch. Using the illusion of a boxing career, Huston takes a rare look at the losing team and their dreams, which never come true.
Although Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” generates critical praise, it also stirs its fair share of controversy. Eastwood stars as Frankie Dunn, a weathered and lonely trainer. Each morning, he attends mass and goes head to head with the priest. Teaming up with Scrap (Morgan Freeman), the old-timers train Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Growing up in an Ozarks trailer park, Maggie is a gruff boxer, past her heyday, but unwilling to throw in the towel. Frankie initially claims, “Girlie tough, ain’t enough,” but overtime his outlook changes. As Maggie and Frankie bond, he becomes the father she never had and she becomes the daughter he lost. An abundance of night scenes, shadows, and silhouettes compose Eastwood’s dark visual style and somber mood. He sets the moral characters against the dark and grimy backdrop to explores how difficult it is to lead a righteous life in a cynical world. The boxing scenes further reflect the theme, showcasing Maggie’s string of victories as a byproduct of her hard work. However, when a fallen opponent takes a cheap shot after the bell, tragedy transpires. The boxing framework opens the door for several undertones to surface. The film questions Frankie’s religion and tests his moral compass as Maggie’s life falls into his hands.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Danny Flynn in Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer.” In the duo’s third collaboration, Sheridan returns to Northern Ireland. Set in Belfast, Flynn has a promising boxing career, until he is locked up for 18 years. His charges stem from his association with the IRA and the subsequent terrorist activity. Upon release, Danny attempts to live a stable and peaceful life. Overcoming his sectarian hatred, he teams up with his old trainer, Ike (Ken Stott), and opens a gymnasium for aspiring boxers of all faiths. Despite their yearning for peace, the political turmoil invades the gym. Boxing acts as both a metaphor and a backdrop for the political battle. In the boxing sequences, the surreal visuals satirize the sport, exposing the ill logic behind the alternative solution to the political warfare, which continues the tradition of violence. Remembering to be mindful of the overall political picture, Sheridan relies on subtle techniques to cast a big net. He captures a rare look at the human and emotional cost. Constructing sentimental connections, Sheridan gives a name and a new understanding to the faces behind the historic acts of terror. With great performances from Day-Lewis and Watson, his star-crossed lover, the director frames the violent politics through a violent sport.
Directed by Ron Howard, Russell Crowe stars as James J. Braddock in the real life fairy tale, “Cinderella Man.” Howard’s directing is consistent with the rags-to-riches story. In one of the opening scenes, the camera pans left over a dressing table, revealing trophies and a floral wallpaper that disappear and fade over the four-year time span. An ethnographic film, set in the greater New York City area during the Depression, it celebrates the Irish-American heavyweight boxer and his comeback. The boxing sequences literally and metaphorically encompass the historical moment. The lighting mimics the early twentieth century paintings by George Bellows, the use of different lenses convey both the vastness and entrapment of the Depression, and the beating of the outmatched boxer makes the fights physically painful to watch. The film captures not only the look but also the emotion of the economic catastrophe, transcending Braddock’s shame for taking handouts and his frustration in disciplining his starving son for stealing food. A family man who puts the community on his shoulders, Braddock resorts to the ring and provides a rare moment of hope through his fairytale story.