Stoker: Yeah, top spot. And I’m just one punch away.
Julie: I remember the first time you told me that! You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill? Don’t you? You’ll always be just one punch away…
- The Set-Up (1949)
From the sublime (Raging Bull) to the ridiculous (Grudge Match) and the very earliest days of cinema, the world of boxing has provided fertile ground for film-makers. It all began with The Ring (1927), a silent feature made at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire, directed by a 28 year old Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, about a fictional booth-fighter called Jack ‘One Round’ Sander. Since then the prize-ring has continued to fire the imaginations of script writers and directors, continuing through to the upcoming 2015 Weinstein release of Southpaw, starring a suddenly very muscular Jake Gyllenhall. Hands of Stone, the much anticipated Roberto Duran biopic is also due to hit the screens in the next few months. In fact, as we now approach a full century of popular, mass-market cinema, Wikipedia lists 201 classified Boxing films produced thus far, meaning the industry has averaged at least two a year.
The movie business loves boxing because it provides so many of the standard elements of a strong story, without having to reach for them. We have good guys and bad guys. We have choices between honour and money. We are presented with characters facing two layers of struggle – inside and outside the ring (think of Hilary Swank’s character, Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, overcoming her trailer-trash past and the boxing world’s gender bias as well as her opponents). Lead characters are faced with difficult personal and moral dilemmas. (Should Rocky fight again when told he might go blind, even though he is broke? Should he throw in the towel when Apollo is being battered by Drago? Should Lamotta agree to take a dive to get a world title shot in Raging Bull?) All of this sort of stuff is screenwriting gold. Due to the straightforward dichotomy of a fight and its win / lose outcome, endings are comfortably taken care of too – ultimate triumph or disaster are introduced with seamless ease.
Yet despite Hollywood’s love affair with the sweet science, it has also encountered a clear problem. Simply put, boxing films are rarely capable of convincing the fight-game insider or serious fan. In fact I say ‘rarely’ in the spirit of generosity. Someone with limited knowledge of the noble art may find the typical actor-on-steroids believable as a professional fighter, but for those of us who follow the game closely, much of the actual action is laughable. Punches are clumsy, footwork is non-existent (watch Will Smith repeatedly crossing his feet in Ali, it drives me nuts – that’s meant to be Muhammad Ali for God’s sake!) and the violence is exaggerated to absurd levels. Hooks and uppercuts land with the sound of sledgehammers smashing plate glass windows.
In the movies, boxers will absorb levels of punishment that would see most men hospitalised within a round. Nearly all of Rocky’s fights would have been stopped in the first six minutes and he would surely have been dead by the end of the second film in real life. Maybe it is natural to try to heighten drama for viewers in this way, I can perhaps accept that, but unforgivably, film-makers sometimes even show scant knowledge of the rules. In Million Dollar Baby, for example, the amusingly evil, German caricature champion, Billie ‘The Blue Bear’, is allowed by the referee to knock opponents down and repeatedly hit them while they are prone on the canvas, like an MMA fighter. Even the punch which leads to the film’s denouement (I won’t give it away in case you haven’t seen it) is landed seconds after the bell and is a deliberate illegal blow to the back of the neck, while her opponent is walking back to her corner, yet she is not disqualified, despite numerous other infractions during the bout. Such howling errors ruin the film’s credibility for knowledgeable viewers, a great shame as the powerful last twenty minutes deserve to be taken seriously.
There are also problems around films which depict real fights that can easily be viewed online. A huge percentage of world title and elite contests from the 60s onwards can now be viewed on Youtube. There are even a fair few from the pre-war years and comparisons are all-too-easily made. By way of general illustration, take a look at these two clips. The first shows the Paramount pictures treatment of the last round between Micky Ward and Liverpool’s Shea Neary, starring Mark Wahlberg as Ward, in their film The Fighter, released in 2010. The second shows the real last round of that contest, which took place at the London Olympia in 2000.
The Fighter, to be fair, is one of the industry’s better efforts. Like most actors Wahlberg over-pumped but did fairly well in achieving a physique not dissimilar to Ward’s (it’s not just about PEDs and bench press guys!) and the settings and atmosphere of the fight scenes are quite realistically rendered, in my opinion. Yet my immediate reaction on watching Wahlberg boxing was that he looks like an utterly hopeless novice. His legs are wooden, his hands are slow and as he launches into actor Anthony Molinari, who plays Shea Neary, 30 seconds or so into the round, he is off balance and swinging clumsy arm punches. You might accuse me of picking holes and maybe you’d be right, but as he is supposed to be a world-class fighter, for me the illusion is immediately blown.
The fight choreography dilutes the impact too. The reality of that final round, as shown in the second video, was of two tired fighters, both of whom knew they could hurt each other, trying to engineer openings. It was a fascinating point in a delicately poised contest, pregnant with natural tension. The session was in fact fairly even, as each prodded and waited for the other to make a mistake, until Ward’s sweetly timed uppercut triggered the end. The movie lost all that real boxing drama in the cinematic desire for non-stop attack from one fighter then the other. Why make it so cartoonish? Wasn’t the reality gripping enough?
I’m aware that I may be setting the bar unreasonably high. Is it possible for an actor with no real boxing experience to go into a gym for 3 months or so, do some training and come out moving and throwing like a seasoned pro? Perhaps not. I guess the reality also is that Hollywood doesn’t particularly care about people like me or my pedantry. Boxing enthusiasts will make up a tiny percentage of their target market. But it would be lovely if once, for the sake of art and authenticity, somebody got it all just right. In the meantime, here are my top three boxing movies. I must admit to only having seen about 20 from the 201 possibilities, so would be interested in hearing the views of others.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
The Scorsese / DeNiro classic features a typically committed performance from its leading man, who played both the overweight, retired LaMotta and the lean middleweight version. By dieting, training and allowing his bodyweight to yo-yo up and down he undergoes a remarkable physical transformation. He also did a typically superb job of capturing the Bronx Bull’s inner conflict and dysfunctional personal relationships, with great support from Joe Pesci as his brother. While some of the boxing action was poorly rendered and the actor playing all-time-great Sugar Ray Robinson looked nothing like a fighter, the rest of the movie was strong enough to just about get away with it.
2. The Boxer (1997)
This story of fighter / ex IRA member Danny Flynn and his post prison experiences during the troubles features what are, in my opinion, some of the best cinematic boxing sequences ever filmed. Star Daniel Day-Lewis trained with Barry McGuigan prior to the movie and did an admirable job in learning the movement and techniques of boxing. He also had a realistic, non-muscle-bound fighter’s physique. The realism is helped by the fact that Lewis was not playing a world champion or ring legend, meaning his lack of speed and occasional awkwardness did not look out of place. The rest of the film is ok, although nothing special, otherwise I would have put it at number one.
3. Cinderella Man (2005)
I’m a sucker for an underdog story (another repeated boxing theme!) and there is none better than that of James J Braddock who went from eating in soup kitchens to heavyweight champion of the world in the space of a year. Universal Pictures circumvented a lot of the common boxing-film problems by mostly shooting the fight scenes from the waist up, using slo-mo when necessary and breaking up the sequences. At 5ft 10 Russell Crowe doesn’t look much like a heavyweight but his portrayal of a thoroughly decent man struggling during the great depression, before finally getting a golden opportunity is all done heart-warmingly enough, without becoming mawkish or overly sentimental.