I first posted a list of my favorite boxing movies a little over five years ago. That's basically a century in blogging years. Anyhoo, since then I've watched some more movies that take on the sport, including two very recently. It was due to those two movies I decided that it was time to update this list. I was planning on putting it out in a few more weeks. Then I woke up last Saturday morning to find out that Muhammad Ali has passed away. I posted a tribute to him yesterday that spoke about what he means to me personally. Consider this a continuation. The original list, which you can read here, included twelve movies because the length of a championship fight is twelve rounds. In honor of Ali, who does have a presence on this list, this updated list has fifteen films. Fifteen was the number of rounds in a championship fight during his career. Some films have moved up the list, some down because my opinions have changed a bit over the last five years. There are some new entries, too. Let's get to it.
15. The Hurricane
Denzel Washington as Rubin CarterThe title doesn't refer to a weather system, but a fighter. That fighter's actual name is Rubin Carter. He is wrongly convicted of murder and after years, and some help from a couple of friendly Canadians, manages to get his case heard again. It's another masterful performance by none other than Denzel Washington in a career filled with them.
14. Cinderella Man
Russell Crowe as James J. BraddockAnother of the several biopics to make the cut is about James J. Braddock. We watch him as he struggles to keep his family afloat during The Great Depression. Eventually, he has no choice but to return to the profession he had already left behind, boxing.
Mike Tyson as Mike TysonWay back in 1995, HBO made a biopic about Mike Tyson starring Michael Jai White as the enigmatic superstar. This is not that. This is a documentary about Tyson featuring plenty of Mike basically psychoanalyzing himself. He comes across as intelligent, yet warped. It's an endlessly fascinating, and a bit scary.
12. Rocky II
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky BalboaIn the forty years since the original, people either forget or ignore that Rocky's ascension to the heavyweight throne is an arc that plays out over two whole films. This is the second of the two and is nearly as good as the first. It's also the last film in the series before settling into the campiness it gave us throughout the 80s.
11. Let's Do It Again
Jimmie Walker as Bootney FarnsworthThis is a boxing film through and through, but it's hardly about the boxer that becomes the champ. This is about the two schemers that rigged the match, Clyde Williams and Billy Foster, played by Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, respectively. Yes, I know, groan, Bill Cosby. I'll not pretend that this wasn't funny just because we no longer like him.
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis CreedThe Rocky franchise came back in a big way in 2015, thanks to the injection of some new blood. That doesn't always work, but it did in this case. Director Ryan Coogler crafted a film with a healthy heaping of nostalgia while moving the saga forward in compelling ways. To help him out, he got two excellent performances - one from series newcomer Michael B. Jordan, the other from none other than Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone.
9. Hard Times
Charles Bronson as ChaneyI could have included this in the prior list, but chose not to because it's not about what we currently think of as boxing with gloves in the ring under flashing lights. I'm going with this time. It's about bare-knuckle brawlers and their shady "promoters" that put on their exhibitions in back alleys, shipyards, and the like. Star Charles Bronson gives it monosyllabic grit to spare while a verbose James Coburn walks away with the film as his manager, Speed.
Will Smith as Muhammad AliMichael Mann's biopic of the recently late Muhammad Ali is a fantastically put together film. It covers roughly a decade of the champ's life starting with his initial winning of the heavyweight crown through his defeat of George Foreman. It's fantastically put together and Will Smith earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ali. It's one of the more artsy boxing films ever made which, perhaps, contributed to it losing money at the box office, but don't let that sway you if you haven't seen it. Go watch it. Now.
7. Million Dollar Baby
Hilary Swank as Maggie FitzgeraldThe lone lady on our list occupies a very solid spot. Hilary Swank gives one of her two best performances in bringing a woman to the screen who has to fight for everything she has, and eventually fight for even more than that. Clint Eastwood directs the heart wrencher and gets every bit of emotion out of his film. This includes a great performance by Morgan Freeman, and one from Clint, himself.
6. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson as Jack JohnsonIn the world of documentaries, Ken Burns is a god. He brings his midas touch to boxing with a look at Jack Johnson, the first black man to win the heavyweight championship of the world. It's a four hour long affair that originally aired over two nights on PBS. Every second is worth it. If you thought Ali was arrogant, Johnson puts him to shame by talking big and flaunting his affairs with white women during the earliest two decades of the 20th century. I'll say no more. Just see it.
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight
Anthony Quinn as Mountain RiveraUnlike most films on this list, we meet our hero at the very end of his career. We open the film on him getting bludgeoned by one Cassisus Clay playing himself, shortly before famously changing his name to Muhammad Ali. After this, everyone recognizes Mountain is washed up and punch drunk and no one will license him to fight. It's a brilliant character study about a man trying to maintain his dignity and make his way in the world after the thing he loves most is taken from him. Those who are not fans of the sport might like this one more than others since there is no more boxing depicted after the opening.
4. The Fighter
Mark Wahlberg as Micky WardMost boxing movies focus on the big guys. This is about one of the little guys in more ways than one. We're talking about former welterweight champ Micky Ward. He gets to overcome long odds and rise to fame and fortune. If that's all there were to it, The Fighter would not occupy such a lofty spot. It's Ward's supremely dysfunctional family that gets the job done. They rope us in and take us on a wild rollercoaster ride filled with disillusionment, entitlement, and drug addiction, to name a few things. Wahlberg's subtle, yet effective portrayal as Ward grounds the film, but the cast around him lifts it to tremendous heights. It includes Oscar winning work from Christian Bale and two more Oscar nominated performances, one from Melissa Leo, the other from Amy Adams.
3. When We Were Kings
Muhammad Ali as Muhammad AliWe now arrive at the quintessential boxing documentary about the quintessential boxer. Two feature films about Muhammad Ali, 1977's The Greatest which actually starred the boxer as himself, and the aforementioned Ali, use the Ali-Foreman fight as its climactic moment. This doc is solely devoted to the fight. We cover how it came about, what happened while everyone involved was in Zaire, where the fight took place, and of course, what happened in the actual fight. Every bit of it is endlessly fascinating.
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky BalboaWhen I say boxing movie, this is what comes to mind for most of America, if not the entire world. It permeated pop culture in a way no other film on the sport has managed. So much of it is iconic beginning with the theme song. Then there's Rocky chasing chicken, punching a side of beef, running through the streets of Philadelphia, and of course, "Yo, Adrian!" These things stick in our mind, but it's the movie between those moments that truly makes it great. If you've never seen it, this is much more character study than you might think, and an excellent one, at that. And just to make one more connection to The Greatest, the film's iconic villain Apollo Creed is heavily based on Muhammad Ali.
1. Raging Bull
Robert De Niro as Jake LaMottaThis is the sports movie that only Martin Scorsese could have made. It tells the true tale of the self-destructive middleweight champ Jake LaMotta. To say the man was dangerous to himself and those around him is putting it lightly. Robert De Niro simply lights up the screen from beginning to end and paints a menacing, and eventually, sad figure. To quote my entry on this film on the original list, "here is a brutal movie about a brutal man in a brutal sport."
That's my take. Let me know what's missing as I haven't seen every boxing film. Before I go, I have to extend my condolences to the family of Theresa Saldana who appeared in Raging Bull as Lenore. She passed away on June 6, 2016 at age 61.
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