By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 10, 2010 at 7:15AM
“Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956)
It almost seems that you can't be a true movie star until you've stepped into the ring: Brando, De Niro, Russell Crowe, um, Michelle Rodriguez -- they've all done it, and won plaudits for their performances. James Dean clearly knew this, and was meant to put on the shorts and gloves to play troubled boxing star Rocky Graziano, who started in the sport to make cash after fleeing juvenile crimes and deserting from the army. Unfortunately, Dean died before he could take on the role, and the responsibility fell to relative unknown Paul Newman, in what proved to be a star-making role. The film's been rather superseded by later, more incisive films, and it never quite transcends its studio melodrama generic trappings, but it's still an efficient, gripping potboiler, mostly thanks to the reliable hands at the helm, director Robert Wise and writer Ernest Lehmann, and to Newman's gripping performance. The actor rarely got the plaudits of contemporaries like Brando, but proves here that from the beginning, he deserved to be mentioned among the greats. [B]
Honorable Mentions: We briefly referred to Michelle Rodriguez above, who broke through with Karyn Kusama's drama "Girlfight," and while the "Avatar" star's performance is clearly the highlight, and Kusama appears to have squandered whatever promise she once showed, it's a half-decent film. "The Champ," meanwhile, is one of the most enduringly popular boxing flicks, in both versions, but they're pretty sentimental, even if the ending is a true tearjerker. Jim Sheridan's "The Boxer" features unsurprisingly brilliant turns from Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson, but goes through some narrative turns that feel a little contrived.
There's a selection of fine documentaries, most notably the Ali/Foreman film "When We Were Kings," but Nanette Burnstein's "On The Ropes," James Toback's "Tyson" and Ken Burns' "Unforgivable Blackness" are all worth a watch. Robert Wise's earlier boxing flick, "The Set-Up," is another decent noir, while "The Harder They Fall" and "Gentleman Jim" are fairly similar. Walter Hill's "Hard Times" is a visceral look at bare-knuckle boxing, while the similarly underground fight sequences in "Snatch" are some of Guy Ritchie's best work.
There are also a few films that, while featuring boxers, don't quite count -- most notably "On The Waterfront," in which Brando's character is an ex-prize fighter. "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" is a charming comedy, although tonally a little odd, while Rod Lurie's "Resurrecting the Champ" is, like most of Lurie's work, something of a misfire but features one of the better recent performances from Samuel L. Jackson.
-- Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Mark Zhuravsky, Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell