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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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“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 The film's been rather superseded by later, more incisive films, and it never quite transcends its studio melodrama generic trappings, but it's still an efficient, gripping potboiler, mostly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

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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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