Archive for January 27th, 2010

“I am just a poor boy

Though my story’s seldom told

I have squandered my resistance

For a pocket full of mumbles such are promises

All lies and jests

Still a man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest”


I started compiling a list of the best sporting movies of all time and quickly came to the conclusion that there were more boxing ones than any other sport, so I decided to shelve that one for a time and take a look at boxing. What is it that makes it so cinematic? Is it that it is easier to effectively duplicate and shoot that sports held in larger arenas or is it because it is such an emotive sport with such great characters involved in it? Probably a combination of the two. There are lots of good boxing movies, I have only picked the best. Have I missed your favourite?


Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): Director by Robert Wise:

Amazingly this was just Paul Newman’s second movie and his first staring role, at 31 he was considered by many too old for the part that he got after the death of James Dean who was originally cast. He plays real life champion Rocky Graziano. Newman is brilliant as the boxer who rises from a childhood of petty crime in New York to be middleweight champion of the world via prison and the army. The authenticity of the story is what makes it so compelling, it is know great  surprise that Graziano co wrote the movie and trained Newman in the ring. They also spent time together helping the method man emulate the way Graziano moved, spoke and his mannerisms. The boxing scenes are really well handled and shot, without quality in these moments the film would never work. Newman’s portrayal of Graziano is angry and frank, this is perfect for the earlier parts of the film but actually works really well later as he becomes a reformed character.

Rocky (1976): Director by John G. Avildsen:

If I had compiled this list a few years ago I wouldn’t have included this movie but looking back most of the problems with Rocky are with the flabby directionless sequels (parts three and five, the real low points). For all its cliché’s and over sentimentality Rocky is a good honest rags to riches sports movie. The boxing scenes are well filmed but can never be great as they are scripted/stage-manage for maximum emotional effect and aren’t worried about been cheesy. In true underdog style the back from the brink victories belong in wrestling not boxing but this is Hollywood what can you expect. For the best performances you have to look outside the ring to Talia Shire’s Adrian and Burt Young as her brother Paulie. Not the best boxing movie ever put probably the best known.

Raging Bull (1980):Director by Martin Scorsese:

Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (with uncredited rewrites by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro) and based on Jake Lamotta’s autobiography, this is another true story of a middleweight boxer.  Very different from Somebody Up There Likes Me, Raging Bull takes every convention and cliché of the sporting movie and turns them, if not on their head certainly somewhat off balance. At the heart of the story is ma fighter who never got his title shot because of the corruption of his management, but the film and De Niro’s performance cut deeper than that to his own self loathing and self destruction.  The cinematography is just sublime, every time I see the movie it makes me wonder why filmmakers ever bother with colour. This is most evident in the fighting scenes where famously shot in different size rings, getting larger as the movie goes on and Lamotta’s abity and stature begins to wane. Amazingly their was nor original music composed for the movie, instead Scorsese selected music by composer Pietro Mascagni. Not just the best boxing movie of all time, the best sports movie of all time.

When We Were Kings (1996) (Documentary): Director by Leon Gast:

Yes, a documentary makes the list. The documentary is the story of what is possibly the most famous fight in the history of boxing, The Rumble in the Jungle. The fight took place in Zaire in 1974 between Ali and heavyweight champion George Foreman. What the documentary reminds us isn’t just Ali’s ability as a boxer but his charisma as man and his power as an icon. At the time of the fight Forman wasn’t just unbeaten, he was considered unbeatable he had won all his forty fights, all but three by knockout. We also get to see the political backdrop of the fight held in a country run by a dictator. What you don’t see in the movie is what happened after it was made. It won the best documentary feature Oscar in 1997. The two fighters where amongst the group who accepted the statuette, by this time Ali was suffering from Parkinsons, and was helped on stage by Forman.

The Boxer (1997):  Director by Jim Sheridan:

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Danny Flynn, a professional boxer who is imprisoned for fourteen years for his involvement with the IRA. On release he tries to get his life back on track by going straight, resuming his life as a boxer and starting a boxing club for kids in his old neighbourhood. As part of his new life Danny wishes to be free from political violence and as such makes his boxing club non-sectarian. His former IRA colleagues are not happy with this or with his relationship with his old flame Maggie (Emily Watson). This is made even more complicated by Maggie’s farther (Played by the brilliant as eve Brian Cox) being the local IRA leader. There actually isn’t much boxing in the movie but what there is, is helped by Daniel Day-Lewis boxing ability. He was trained by former world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan who claimed that Day-Lewis was one of the most natural boxers he ever met and could have been a professional had he started younger. More of a political film than a sporting one, it explores splinter groups within the paramilitary groups of the time. Ultimately though it isn’t boxing or politics that holds the film together, it is the theme of undying love between Danny and Maggie and more importantly the brilliant performances from Day-Lewis and Watson playing the pair.

Girlfight (2000): Director by Karyn Kusama:

Michelle Rodriguez plays Diana Guzman a troubled teenager who lives with her younger brother and their abusive farther. With trouble at home and things not much better at school her life is going nowhere. Although he hates it, Her brother boxes to please their farther. Whist collecting him from the gym she convinces the trainer to teacher her, he reluctantly agrees. It soon becomes evident that she has a far greater aptitude and ability than her brother. The key to the film is Rodriguez’s believability in the part, both as the angry teen and the talented boxed. It was her first film role won via an open casting of over 300 girls. The film was shot in just 30 days. Half the time it took Rodriguez to prepare for the part.

Ali (2001): Director by Michael Mann:

Covering a ten year period 1964 until 1974, the film encapsulates Cassius Clay wining the world heavyweight title, his relationship with Malcom X, Changing his name to Muhammad Ali, refusing the draft and the consequences of that. The film finishes with the Rumble In The Jungle against George Foreman as mention above. Although only covering ten years, a lot happened making this a truly epic movie. The boxing scenes lack the style and the outright brutality of Raging Bull instead looking more like a real fight. Mann does not shy away from the violence of the sport, some of the fights are over ten minuets long, the shots that look like real fight footage are more effective than the showy point of view shots but even they work. The greatest achievement and revelation of the movie is Will Smith, not only does he put in a great emotional performance as the champ but he makes you believe her really is Muhammad Ali. This is truly amazing considering how recognisable and high profile Ali is to this day.

Million Dollar Baby (2004): Director by Clint Eastwood:

I went into the film expecting a sort of feel good sports move, triumphing against the odds. I even heard it described as a sort of female Rocky. And that’s what you get to begin with. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) owns a boxing gym. He also acts as a trainer. Having recently lost his top fighter to a more ambitious manager, Frankie reluctantly agrees to train Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank in her second Oscar willing role). The reason for his reluctance is that as he says (repeatedly) “I don’t train girls” and because he thinks she is too old. There actually isn’t much boxing In the movie but what is there is well choreographed and shot. After she achieves great success she eventually has a title fight against welterweight champion, Billie “the Blue Bear” (played by real life boxer Lucia Rijker). I don’t think I am giving much away by saying at this pint the movie takes a huge shift in narrative making the second half of the film completely different. A testament to how good the film is, is the way it holds the interest after such a dramatic change of pace and theme. Love it or hate it, it is a film you will never forget.

Worth seeing but not good enough to make the list:

  • Broken Blossoms (1919)
  • The Champ (1979)
  • Rocky IV (1985)
  • Homeboy (1988)
  • Diggstown aka Midnight Sting (1992)
  • Gladiator (1992)
  • Play It to the Bone (1999)
  • Undisputed (2002)
  • Cinderella Man (2005)
  • Rocky Balboa (2006)

What did I miss?

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