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11 Boxing Films That Will Knock You Out

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton 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.
11

“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+]

This article is related to: Feature, The Fighter


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