Monday, June 13, 2016

Favorite Boxing Movies 2.0

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 Carter
The 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. Braddock
Another 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.

13. Tyson
Mike Tyson as Mike Tyson
Way 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 Balboa
In 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 Farnsworth
This 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.

10. Creed
Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed
The 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 Chaney
I 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.

8. Ali
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali
Michael 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 Fitzgerald
The 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 Johnson
In 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 Rivera
Unlike 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 Ward
Most 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 Ali
We 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.

2. Rocky
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa
When 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 LaMotta
This 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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  1. Raging Bull will always be my favorite boxing film. I just love the last fight sequence where LaMotta is being beaten to a bloody pulp but always stood up. Rocky is another film I love as I also liked Tyson a lot as it shows Mike Tyson being honest but also vulnerable. I have mixed feelings on The Fighter as I just can't fucking stand Melissa Leo's performance in that film. Million Dollar Baby I like a lot as I also like the other Rocky films w/ the exception of the fifth film. I like The Hurricane and Ali as I think the latter is due for a re-watch. I don't remember seeing When We Were Kings as I think I need to see it. It's been a very long time.

    1. "You didn't get me down, Ray." Rocky V, ugh. Tyson is very vulnerable in that dock. I liked Leo, but to each his own. Definitely time for a When We Were Kings rewatch, for both of us.

  2. Ahh I missed it! You have seen When We Were Kings! Amazing film... I didn't realise the cultural significance of the Rumble.

    As for Raging Bull, I haven't seen it and I have no excuse as my Dad gave me his copy! Your posts (and Ali passing) have pushed me over, now I gotta see it. Especially if its your no. 1 boxing film.

    I also need to get around to seeing Creed. Haven't read anything negative about it at all

    1. Yes, that Ali-Foreman fight, along with Ali-Frazier I are two of the most culturally significant fights of all time.

      Can't wait to see what you think of Raging Bull.

  3. Here's a few you might consider:

    Body and Soul: It feels cliched these days, but it was far less so when it was made. Stars John Garfield, who was extremely talented, but looks a lot like a guy who spent time in the ring. Really worth tracking down.

    Fat City: Great story. Admittedly, the boxing isn't that good, but it's a really good film. It's a rough ride, but worth it.

    The Great White Hope: Again, the boxing is terrible, but it's a pretty good story. Feels a bit stagey, but it's fun to see James Earl Jones at this part of his career. I noticed this on your previous "also-ran" list, and my guess is that it didn't make the list because the boxing isn't that good.

    1. I've seen the Leon Isaac Kennedy version of Body and Soul, but not the original. I should fix that.

      Fat City has been on my watchlist for a while now. Another I need to see.

      The boxing is a knock on The Great White Hope, but not as big as you might think. After all, I think the boxing in Million Dollar Baby is terrible, and it's far too cartoonish in all of the first five Rocky flicks. It came down to the last spot and deciding if I liked it better than The Hurricane. TGWH lost a split decision.

  4. I'm not much of a boxing fan but I have seen several of these. Wish I could say I liked all I saw but the only two I'd ever watch again are Requiem and the first Rocky.

    I second the recommendation of the first Body & Soul and here are a few more older titles that I did like that dealt with boxing.

    Champion with Kirk Douglas
    The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart-This one looks at the boxing racket more than a specific boxer.
    The Set-Up with Robert Ryan-This is the one I've liked the most. It's a dark very well acted story told in real time.

    1. The best boxing movies, or depicting any sport for that matter, are not about the sport. They're about the people who happen to participate in them. I approach each film as if it's going to be just that. Films actually about the sport are harder to pull off because they require a familiarity and level of fandom not needed for character driven stories. I feel each of the films I picked, docs included, are character driven. Boxing is just where (one of) the conflict(s) of the story lies. In other words, I hope you give some of the ones you haven't seen a chance.

      I do plan on seeing the original Body and Soul, as well as the others you recommend. As an aside, I've only seen in the neighborhood of 5-8 Bogart movies so I really need to dig into his filmography.

    2. I agree that it's the relationships that kept the films watchable rarely the sport depicted and I'm not adverse to checking out any of these I've yet to see. I get leery after a while though when I watch a series of them and run between indifference-The Fighter, feeling manipulated-Million Dollar Baby, to outright hate-Raging Bull. But then I run across something like Let's Do it Again which made me laugh or The Set-Up which kept me involved down to the last second of the film and my hope is restored.

      Bogart made many great films, and an equal amount of crap, so you have some good viewing ahead. He actually was in another fight film (playing a character with the unfortunate name of Turkey Morgan), with Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis (whose character is named FLUFF!!!), called Kid Galahad and it does rely on the rivalry between the two of them to propel the story. It's a bit dated but a solid film, the story is certainly durable it was reworked four years later with a circus motif called The Wagons Roll at Night and again starred Bogart though in the lead this time, plus it was musicalized for Elvis Presley under its original title in the 60's but stick with the original.

      Don't know what Bogart's you've seen though I assume that Casablanca and Maltese Falcon are two of them, if not they're absolute musts but I'd recommend:

      We're No Angels-A sort of fractured Christmas tale about three good-hearted escapees from Devil's Island. It might be my favorite of his films.

      High Sierra-This is the one that really moved him forward into the top ranks and his follow-up The Maltese Falcon made sure he stayed there. It's a tough crime drama with Ida Lupino matching Bogart every step of the way performance wise.

      They Drive by Night-Bogart's part is secondary but the film is an entertaining look at wildcat trucking as well as a murder mystery with a star making turn by Ida Lupino.

      Dark Passage-Bogart is an escaped con who undergoes plastic surgery about halfway through the film until then the story is told from his point of view with the other characters speaking directly to the camera. With Lauren Bacall and Agnes Moorehead doing what they did best, slinking seductively and being a total bitch respectively.

      In a Lonely Place-A hard despairing noir with a pervasive air of hopelessness throughout the film. A great film and another favorite.

      Marked Woman, The Roaring Twenties, The Big Sleep, Dead Reckoning, Key Largo, Deadline U.S.A., Sabrina (though Bogart is miscast Audrey Hepburn is magical), The Caine Mutiny, The Desperate Hours, the extremely odd Beat the Devil and three that are venerated and aren't bad films but that I hold no particular affection for The African Queen, To Have and Have Not and The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

      He's also in Dark Victory which is a wonderful film but he's absurdly miscast in a small part as an Irish stable hand. The studio forced him to do it and he hated his performance referring to it as a black mark on a thing of beauty and would bristle whenever anyone mentioned his part in the movie. Despite that the movie is completely worth checking out.

    3. For what it's worth the other Bogart movie that absolutely cannot be missed is Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I assume you've seen it, but if you haven't, move it to the top of your list. It's a movie that doesn't feel like it has aged a day in terms of plot and performance. I'll disagree with Joel on this one--I think it's a true masterpiece. I love The Caine Mutiny, too--I enjoy the hell out of Bogart when he plays bastards, and he's a complete weasel in that.

      Huge seconds for In a Lonely Place, which is brutal, but wonderfully so.

      I agree on The African Queen and To Have and Have Not--they're overrated. Sabrina is cute, but it's much more worth it for the transcendant Audrey Hepburn.

    4. One of the reasons I've been dragging my feet on Bogart is that I don't really like his acting in most of what I've seen him in. They have been mostly good movies, but I usually like other things about them far better than him. He often comes across as too stiff, physically, and vocally monotone. This includes Casablanca. I love the film, as a whole, but don't get all the acclaim over his performance. That said, I have seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It is fantastic and he is fantastic in it. This is the best Bogart performance of what I've seen.

      Others that I've seen: The Caine Mutiny, The Maltese Falcon, The Roaring Twenties, Key Largo, The Petrified Forest, Angels With Dirty Faces, and Bullets or Ballots. I think that's all of them. That makes nine including The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Casablanca.

      I definitely plan on seeing plenty more with The African Queen at the top of the list due to it's status as a classic.

      To bring it back to boxing, Kid Galahad is one I've been planning to see for a while. And hatred for Raging Bull? Sigh. Don't know what I'm going to do with you, Joel.

    5. I have to tell ya Dell that Scorsese is wildly variable for me and many of the films others just adore, Raging Bull, The Departed, Taxi Driver, Hugo, I hated and couldn't get out of the theatre fast enough. But on the other hand I loved The Aviator, Shutter Island and the quirky twins The King of Comedy and After Hours. As for the rest of his filmography he has a few others I admire without being able to totally embrace...New York, New York, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Cape Fear, Gangs of New York, Mean Streets...but I don't as a rule connect with his work. I do usually see his stuff though knowing that he's surprised me before.

      I do have one more suggestion as far as boxing movies go, the lesser known 1951 version of Iron Man with Jeff Chandler where he plays a coal miner hoping to better his lot through boxing. It's a reworking of a 1931 film of the same name with Lew Ayres, who is completely unbelievable as a boxer, that is more notable for an early appearance of Jean Harlow as a rapacious tramp who latches onto Lew than anything else. But the 50's version is a solid view. Obviously they have nothing to do with the superhero movies!!

    6. Scorsese usually hits my sweet spot, with the occasional misstep, so we're polar opposites on that front. Never heard of either of those Iron Man movies. I'll have to look into the latter version.

    7. Well that's movie going for you and what keeps the conversation lively. Many choices for every taste. I am looking forward to his announced take on Frank Sinatra as long as it's cast well. That was the one thing that bothered me about The Aviator, Leo was a terrific Hughes and Cate Blanchett great as Kate Hepburn because they conjured up their respective essence. But Kate Beckinsale was a terrible choice for Ava Gardner, suggesting no one so much as Kate Beckinsale in fancy clothes and Gwen Stefani almost as bad as Jean Harlow, though her part was so small it didn't have the impact that Beckinsale's did.

      Also now that you've got me started on these boxing films I've thought of two more I'd recommend.

      Gentleman Jim-a biography of Jim Corbett with one of Errol Flynn's better early performances and a fantastic supporting cast including Alexis Smith, Jack Carson and a standout performance by Ward Bond as John L. Sullivan.

      The other I saw within the last month, it's called "Flesh and Fury" and has an interesting angle. It's the story of a deaf young man who because of the times, it was made in 1952, takes up boxing because he is seen as having a major handicap, deafness at the time was still seen by the general public as a sign of mental deficiency. So one of the few avenues open to a "dummy"-a phrase which is thrown around casually throughout the film is the ring. It's dated in some ways-reading braille is still referred to as "THE sign language" but I found it fascinating as a snapshot of the times. It helped that it was loaded with good performances most importantly by Tony Curtis in the lead, he really makes you feel for his character's struggle.

    8. I am also looking forward to the Scorsese Sinatra flick. I really liked Aviator when I watched it, but it's been long enough since I don't remember much besides Leo being amazing. That said, Beckinsale is an actress whom I don't think is particularly good, so I understand your point. The only film in which I have been impressed by her is Underworld. Really, she was great throughout the series, but it's more a matter the role perfectly suiting her.

      Had no idea there was a movie about John L. Sullivan. I'm in on that one. Not sure on Gentleman Jim. I'd love to see a film on Corbett, just having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of Errol Flynn as a boxer. Flesh and Fury sounds interesting, too.

  5. I really need to see Ali. I was never sure about Will Smith in the role, but with Ali's recent death and my love for Michael Mann, there is nothing stopping me now. I LOVE seeing Cinderella Man, The Hurricane, and The Fighter (so high!) on this list. All three such great boxing movies, more about the men themselves than the fights. Same can be said for most of these I'd say though. Rocky is great, and Creed. Still need to fill in the gaps. I've only seen the others in the franchise in bits and pieces.

    When We Were Kings is a masterpiece of a doc. I'd actually like to re-watch that now as well. Great list, brother!

    1. Michael Mann is great. Smith is great. So yeah, see Ali. The Fighter is brilliant. It earned that spot.

      The Rocky franchise breaks down as follows:

      I, II, & Creed = excellent
      III & IV = silly, campy 80s goodness
      V = shouldn't exist
      Rocky Balboa = much better than expected

      When We Were Kings. Yes.


  6. Requiem for a Heavyweight is SO GOOD!!! Love that you have it here. It's a very underrated classic, and it hosts some superb performances, especially from Mickey Rooney who I think was never better (such a subtle powerful painful turn).

    1. It is absolutely great. And I totally agree about Rooney.

  7. Fantastic list man. Love that Raging Bull is #1 Definitely deserves to be there. Really like The Fighter being there aswell.

    Cant say Im the biggest fan of Ali though. While I like Voight's performance as Cossell a great deal, Will Smith for me, failed to bring the naturalistic charisma of Muhammad Ali to the screen and his performance felt like too much of an imitation to me.

    Superb list otherwise.