|Illustration by Owen Smith|
The second greatest boxing film of all-time wasn’t
really a boxing film. There are no fight scenes-in a boxing ring,
that is – in On the Waterfront, which is ostensibly about the struggle
between dock-workers and their ruthless, corrupt bosses. But to
get to the heart of the film, the viewer must return to Terry Malloy’s
now-famous "contender" speech. The ex-pug laments his
own brother’s role in fixing his fights-and thus effectively captures
the bleak undercurrent of powerlessness experienced by the dock-workers.
It took more than 25 years-and Martin Scorsese-for
Waterfront to be surpassed. But since Raging Bull’s release in
1980, there’s been a raging drought of notable boxing films. (More
about Raging Bull later.) And in the past 10 years, only three
excellent fight films have been released- two of which were first
shown on television: HBO’s Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and
Death of a Champion; When We Were Kings, the documentary about
the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman championship fight in Zaire; and
HBO’s Don King: Only in America. The other attempts have ranged
from lame (The Great White Hype) to feeble (The Mouse) to tepid
(The Boxer) to decent (TwentyFourSeven) to indie (The Destiny of
Marty Fine). The lack of quality fight films contrasts with Hollywood’s
long and distinguished history in the ring: from The Champ to Champion
to Requiem for a Heavyweight to Fat City to Rocky (the FIRST one).
|Sugar Ray Robinson|
But the pendulum swings again, as it will always
do in Hollywood, and at the moment eight boxing-themed projects are
in various stages of development. In December, HBO Sports aired a
documentary about Sugar Ray Robinson. This year, Showtime will air
Marciano, a feature starring Jon Favreau (Swingers) as the undefeated
heavyweight champ. At this writing director Norman Jewison is in
Toronto filming Hurricane and Lazarus, the story about how middleweight
contender Ruben "Hurricane" Carter (Denzel Washington)
won his release from prison.
Several other bio-pics await greenlighting, including
one about heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali (tentatively starring
Will Smith, to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld); two about heavyweight
champ Sonny Liston, (one of which is slated to star Ving Rhames
and be directed by William Friedkin); and a feature about Jim Braddock,
the unlikeliest heavyweight champ this side of Buster Douglas (to
be directed by Penny Marshall).
Two fiction films are also in the works. Early this
year Showtime will release a remake of Body and Soul, starring
former lightweight champ Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, while
Tony Kaye will wrestle One Arm, Tennessee Williams’ unproduced
screenplay about a fighter who loses an arm.
The spate of such films raises the following questions:
Why are filmmakers lining up to do boxing films-and especially
films about real-life boxers? And, perhaps more importantly, will
any of these projects have enough juice to KO Raging Bull, the
reigning heavyweight champ?
No matter who you ask-movie critics, Joe Six-Pack
fans, academic types -every comprehensive survey of sports films
begins with the sport of boxing. Indeed, the history of film begins
with boxing: One of Thomas Edison’s first kinetoscope productions,
filmed at his Orange, New Jersey, laboratory on September 8, 1894,
featured a six-round bout between heavyweight champ Jim Corbett
and Peter Courtney. Later, silent-era stars Charlie Chaplin (The
Champion, City Lights) and Buster Keaton (Battling Butler) used
the sweet science as their foil.
|Ray Mancini in Showtime’s remake of Body and Soul.|
With sound came a move away from physical comedy.
Bio-pics have always been popular fare as the lives of John L. Sullivan
(The Great John L., starring Greg McLure), Jim Corbett (Gentleman
Jim, starring Errol Flynn), Joe Louis (The Joe Louis Story, starring
Coley Wallace), Rocky Graziano (Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring
Paul Newman), Muhammad Ali (The Greatest, starring Ali himself),
and of course, Jake LaMotta, have all been lensed, with varying degrees
of success. As the genre matured, taut film-noir dramas like The
Set Up, The Champ, Body and Soul, The Harder They Fall and Requiem
for a Heavyweight "exposed" boxing’s corrupt underbelly.
The sport comes attached with drama-ready elements:
Victory. Defeat. Mano a mano action. The leading-man hunk gets
to show off his pecs, kick some ass and get the babe. So it’s not
surprising that these projects attract top talent. The long list
of fight directors includes Scorsese, Hitchcock (The Ring), Kazan
(Waterfront), Huston (Fat City), Carl Foreman (Champion), Bruce
Weber (Broken Noses) and Jim Sheridan (The Boxer). Actors, of course,
line up to play boxers primarily because it gives them yet another
excuse to go to the gym, work-out and preen. The veritable who’s-who
of actors as boxers includes Brando, De Niro, Stallone, Wallace
Beery (The Champ), Jimmy Cagney (City for Conquest), William Holden
(Golden Boy), Kirk Douglas (Champion), Ricardo Montalban (Right
Cross), Paul Newman (Somebody Up There), James Earl Jones (The
Great White Hope), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Boxer), Ving Rhames (Don
King: Only in America).
"Boxing is the ultimate confrontational sport," says
director John Herzfeld, who directed Don King. "It goes back
to the days of the gladiators, with a clear winner and loser. It’s
blood, it’s sweat, it’s tears, it’s reaching down inside to absorb
punishment that is astonishing."
"Boxing is the one totally honest art form," says
sportswriter W.C. Heinz. "It’s the most fundamental form of
competition and the most completely expressive of the arts."
Perhaps Leon Gast, who directed When We Were Kings,
best summed up Hollywood’s boxing fixation, placing the blame squarely
on the shoulders of, natch, the writers. "I asked several
writers what was the attraction about boxing and they gave similar
responses," he said. "To them, writing was like boxing-it’s
a one-on-one challenge, and their opponent is a piece of paper."
Be they fact or fiction, boxing films present two
sets of challenges for moviemakers. The first is to capture the
action in the ring in a fresh, knowledgeable way. Because there’ve
been so many boxing films-and because actors cannot easily learn
the nuances of the sweet science-this is no easy feat.
"The challenge is to film fight scenes differently
than you’ve seen them before, and not to copy another filmmaker," says
Herzfeld. "In Don King, I was desperate to capture the fury
of [heavyweight champ] Larry Holmes when he first came on the scene.
I talked to Bill Butler, my cameraman, and we built a box camera
where the Holmes character pulverized the lens. He literally beat
it to shit. You’re completely in a subjective point of view."
Herzfeld’s inspiration was a gladiator movie. "My
favorite fight film is Spartacus," he says. "It’s not
a boxing film, but it’s a fight film-especially the sparring scenes
between Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode. With King, we went in real
tight-right in the ring-with a lot of hand-held stuff. We held
the master shot for a long time."
Charles Winkler, the director of Showtime’s Marciano
(and the son of Irwin Winkler, who exec-produced the Rocky films
and Raging Bull), took a different approach. "We came up with
our own style for the boxing scenes. We took a little from Rocky,
Raging Bull, Requiem for a Heavyweight and Champion and created
our own 10-headed beast."
Most directors choose to present fight scenes in
rococo, spectacularly violent bursts. As Jeff Lieberman, the director
of the HBO documentary Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death
of a Champion, put it, "I’ve never seen a realistic fight
in a movie. In a real fight, it’s normal for there to be some down
time-the fighters clinch and hang on the ropes. In a movie, it’s
all rock ’em, sock ’em. Every punch lands and they land with sound
like you’re being hit by a truck."
Ray Mancini, who stars in Showtime’s upcoming remake
of Body and Soul, has one advantage over the other actors: he’s
a real-life ex-champ. The film crew staged four days worth of sparring
sessions in Reno, with Mancini taking on local fighters, and then
used that footage.
"The boxing has never been believable in films
-it’s way over the top," says Mancini. "The difference
is it’s actors playing fighters. Whether I’m an actor or not is
questionable, but I’m the real deal as a fighter. I don’t have
to convince the audience that I can fight. The question is, can
I convince them that I’m Charlie Davis."
Which brings us to the second-and most basic-challenge
filmmakers face with boxing movies: the story outside the ring
has to be as good or better than the action inside. Whether the
film examines a boxer’s relationship with his mother (Body and
Soul) or offers up an unlikely relationship between a Mexican fighter
and his Anglo female manager (Right Cross), the best ones succeed
on the merits of the story.
Built within this challenge is the two-headed specter
of Scorsese and De Niro. Raging Bull was their homage to Jake LaMotta,
a champ-chump who won and lost the middleweight title in the 1950s.
The violent scenes in and out of the ring underscored how LaMotta’s
fistic prowess allowed him to succeed in one arena but destroyed
his life in another.
Of course, the fight scenes in Raging Bull were anything
but realistic. "Scorsese raised it to the level of ballet," says
Don King’s Herzfeld. But the super slow-motion sequences of noses
being busted open and blood flying served to highlight LaMotta’s
ultra-violent tendencies. Boxing was more than just metaphor in
Raging Bull. It consumed life itself. Because of its breadth, Raging
Bull has defied filmmakers since its 1980 release. Its heavyweight
credentials are formidable. It was nominated for eight Academy
Awards and won two (and many thought it deserved at least six).
It’s often called the best film of the 1980s. It ranks as the No.
24 contender on AFI’s recently released Top 100 list.
Filmmakers don’t like to admit they’re intimated
by another film. As Marciano’s Winkler put it: "My favorite
boxing film is Raging Bull, Raging Bull, Raging Bull-above and
beyond all others. But I wasn’t intimidated by it once we figured
out our approach."
The fact remains that no moviemaker has remotely
approached Raging Bull’s firm hold on the title. Longtime HBO boxing
analyst Larry Merchant believes that, "People hesitated to
make boxing films after Raging Bull. They said, `How can you top
So let’s look at the new crop of contenders. Taken
as a whole, the flurry of current projects is part of a larger
pattern in the industry. Bio-pics are the trend du jour, on TV
and in movie theaters, as the lives of everyone from Larry Flynt
to Malcolm X to Andy Kaufman are up for cinematic grabs. "The
hot ticket in Hollywood is the real-life story," wrote Patrick
Goldstein in September in the Los Angeles Times. "By Hollywood
standards, this revival is an especially curious phenomenon since
there’s no discernible commercial model for biopic success."
"The public has this craving for celebrity profiles
-the kind that A&E is so successful at," Gast says. "Those
films are little more than a compilation of existing archival footage
and expert talking-heads, but people love them."
As mentioned above, boxing bio-pics have been around
forever. They feature automatic name recognition and the inherent
drama surrounding athletic competition. And while the scripts haven’t
been finalized for several of the upcoming bio-pics, they’re sure
to reflect one theme: the boxer-heroes must overcome an obstacle,
either in or out of the ring. Rubin Carter, wrongly convicted of
murder in the 1960s, must battle the legal system to overcome the
trumped-up charge. Rocky Marciano must defeat his long-time idol,
Joe Louis, to win respect and earn a shot at the heavyweight title.
Sonny Liston must battle his demons even as The Mob controls his
every move. Ali must believe in his ability (and his religion)
even as critics scoff at his rhetoric. Jim Braddock, an ugly duckling
fighter with a mediocre record, must endure to become the "Cinderella
Man" heavyweight champ.
Interestingly, the Liston, Carter and Ali films won’t
just have Raging Bull as their target. With the exception of the
Liston and Ali documentaries, there hasn’t been a great feature
film made about an African-American fighter. The Great White Hope,
a fictionalized version of the life of former heavyweight champ
Jack Johnson (starring James Earl Jones), tried, but didn’t quite
pull it off.
The Carter project will probably be the first of
the three to be released. It offers star power in Washington, along
with a dramatic story that many are familiar, but not overly familiar,
with. The danger is that it could turn into just another hum-drum
legal drama. The Ali project features star power, too, with Will
Smith. In this case, the problem may be Ali himself: he was so
charismatic and mythic that perhaps nobody can effectively portray
him. (Shades of John Goodman as Babe Ruth.) The Liston project,
starring Rhames, may be the one to watch for. It’ll be a period
piece-perhaps shot in black-and-white- and if Rhames can effectively
demonstrate the menace and mystery of Sonny Liston, it could be
Contenders or pretenders? We’ll soon see which of
these boxing projects are worthy of championship status. MM