By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 10, 2010 at 7:15AM
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+]