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11 Boxing Films That Will Knock You Out

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
December 10, 2010 7:15 AM
11 Comments
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“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+]

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11 Comments

  • 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
    http://wp.me/p19wJ2-71

  • 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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