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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

“Million Dollar Baby" (2004)
If you’ve somehow made it this far without finding out the second half twist to “Million Dollar Baby,” all we can say is stop reading and go rent the damn thing. But as the rest of you might recall, Clint Eastwood’s film did a pretty good job at the time of keeping the film’s secret under wraps. To be sure, anticipation for the film was high. The film marked the second on-screen pairing of Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, and their first since the acclaimed “Unforgiven.” Added into the mix was the young Oscar winner Hilary Swank, and the premise was certainly exciting. Eastwood played Frankie Dunn, an aging, grizzled boxing trainer who is hounded by Maggie, a not-so-fresh face from the Ozarks who wants to be trained. Frankie relents on two counts: she’s a woman and she’s 32, hardly a ripe age to be getting in the ring. But she wears him down and it turns out she works hard and is a natural. Pretty soon she’s boxing professionally, and the once-tossed-aside Frankie now has a new life and new respect in the gym he runs. Win/win right? It is, until tragedy strikes when Maggie takes a cheap shot from behind after a match has ended and slams her head into the corner stool, leaving her a quadriplegic. Frankie is devastated and blames himself for the mishap, while Maggie, bed bound, lapses into depression and has a leg amputated after an infection. Desperate to end her suffering, Maggie asks Frankie to help her die. And just like that the underdog boxing story becomes a euthanasia tale and not everyone liked that (and if you’re looking for strictly a boxing film, look elsewhere, as the ringside stuff is only about half the picture). And while Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis do their best to make the transition between the film’s two halves as seamless as possible, the turn is still distractingly abrupt, startling and manipulative. Thankfully, then, the performances sell it because the film -- as much as it is about euthanasia -- is also about the undeniable bond forged in sports between a trainer and athlete (or pitcher and catcher, etc., etc.) and for the characters in this film, they found a father and daughter in each other that their own families couldn’t provide. It’s wrenching, powerful stuff and full credit to Eastwood, the final decision isn’t played for politics, but played for heart, and we’ll be damned if it’s not moving as hell. [B+]

“Play It to the Bone” (1999)
In Ron Shelton’s boxing dramedy, Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson are aging fighters pitted against each other for one last payday in the ring. But these best friends will have to get there first, taking part in an unglamorous road trip that reveals their petty insecurities and tensions both professional and sexual. There‘s truth in the film‘s depiction of low-level athletes being forced to nickel-and-dime their way across the country just to compete, as well as the self-denial of the aging sportsman who refuses to go down. But “Play It to the Bone” is mostly vulgar and unpleasant, and Banderas and Harrelson never develop a believable rapport in between bad jokes and predictable road-movie clichés. And there’s especially the feeling that it would be a more interesting film without the female diversions, Lucy Liu and Shelton’s wife Lolita Davidovitch, who both play upsetting fantasy trollops. But once the participants get into the ring, the movie soars, as 'Bone' showcases some of the most realistic boxing action caught on film yet. It’s not exactly worth it slogging through the entire picture just to get to the superior action at the close, but catching the tail end on cable will be well worth it for boxing fans. [C-]

“Raging Bull” (1980)
Picture this: a young, spry Robert De Niro pitching a film about a home wrecking middleweight pugilist’s fall from grace to a bed-ridden, cocaine-addled Martin Scorsese. Though “Raging Bull” requires no introduction, the prior piece of film lore gives some insight into the kind of punishing process that gave birth to one of the greatest boxing pictures of all time and Scorsese’s towering achievement of the 1980s. As Jake La Motta, De Niro scales the heights of method acting, setting a standard that would be referenced time and time again when he gained an astounding 60-70 pounds to portray the overweight La Motta at the twilight of his career. Film geeks swoon at the mere mention of Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s meticulous editing. For Scorsese, the film was an anticipated exorcism and an unexpected resurrection. We, for one, are forever thankful for the latter. [A]

“Rocky” (1976)
Before the glory, before the showmanship, before Sylvester Stallone became a household name, there was only this lightweight slice-of-life drama about a puncher who learns to be a boxer. Philadelphia scrapper Rocky Balboa rises from modest beginnings but doesn’t figure prominently in the local boxing scene until the love of a woman forces him to clean up his routine. Once he hooks up with crusty trainer Mickey (the unforgettable Burgess Meredith), he makes a play for the brass ring -- a match with heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Lost in the glory of the first film is the fact that Rocky never develops a truly solid routine, running out to the ring, getting pummeled, and pummeling back. This didn’t stop the fans for demanding more, leading to a second, triumphant film followed by cartoon sequels (though “Rocky III,” directed by Stallone, features a daring series of match cuts in an opening montage that showcases the series’ best storytelling). Even though the franchise wrapped up in a sixth film with an oddly-wise, saintly Balboa, the first film remains a humble, well-shot character drama with affecting performances and its heart on its sleeve. [B+]

This article is related to: Feature, The Fighter


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