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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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“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+]

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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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