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11 Boxing Films That Will Knock You Out

by Oliver Lyttelton
December 10, 2010 7:15 AM
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Mark Wahlberg David O. Russell The Fighter

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.

“Ali" (2001)
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+]

“Champion" (1949)
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+]

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  • The Man | December 11, 2010 4:03 AMReply

    Your Rocky still is from Rocky Balboa. Amateur hour, is what it amounts to.

  • Les | December 11, 2010 2:49 AMReply

    How could you forget the great John Garfield's Body and Soul?

  • wray | December 11, 2010 2:08 AMReply

    I think you guys accidentally left out the 1962 version of "Requiem for a Heavyweight". Also, I agree with J.J., I would "Diggstown" to the list. That film,along with James Woods and Louis Gossett,jr., is a lot of fun to watch.

  • Mr. Arkadin | December 11, 2010 1:37 AMReply

    btw... Tsukamotos "Tokyo Fist" is probably too fucked up for a list like that (and has not enough boxing in it), but kicks sentimental boxer story crap all day long...

  • Greg | December 11, 2010 1:37 AMReply

    Neglect not The Great White Hype.

  • Mr. Arkadin | December 11, 2010 1:05 AMReply

    Good list as usual. Because the subject is boxing, it's not as big a deal here as on other lists, but too many lists omit superior international Films in favour of more popular american Films. I would like to see way more international Films considered or at least mentioned (if they have not been seen).

    Anyway you should give "Boxer a smrt" (The Boxer and Death) a try, it's really good. You can get it for almost nothing on DVD from the Slovak Film Institute Collection (Slovak Cinema of the 60's). Besides other [non-american] masterpieces... ;)

    Also "Tough Enough" from Richard Fleischer with Quaid and genius Oates should at least get mentioned. It's bad enough a Film to offer total cinephile amusement.

  • MovieGeek | December 11, 2010 12:33 AMReply

    I loved the fighter... The trailer doesn't quite sell it I have to say. Here's my review

  • J.J. | December 11, 2010 12:14 AMReply

    Love the site. The articles are (usually) unbiased and very well written. Just a few problems with this one. Ruben Carter was a middleweight not a heavyweight. Paul Newman played Rocky GRAZIANO in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" not Rocky Marciano. Brando never actually got in the ring on screen. Although Terry Malloy was an ex boxer in "On The Waterfront", there were no actual boxing scenes in the film.

    Why does the writer qualify some of the films as great "boxing" movies. Wouldn't you consider "Raging Bull" and, to a lesser extent, "Rocky" great films?

  • Jeff Mclachlan | December 10, 2010 11:02 AMReply

    I'd add Diggstown to the list . The best 1970's style con artist comedy made in 1992.

  • cirkusfolk | December 10, 2010 10:53 AMReply

    I'll agree with you in that Denzel Washington does give what may be his best performance in The Hurricane...too bad the rest of the film wasn't as great as him. Still, his snub that year led him to win the following year for Training Day.

  • Marrrk | December 10, 2010 8:31 AMReply

    made my day by referring to The Insider as Mann's best

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