Fight flicks still deliver a box office knockout
David O Russell's boxing film The Fighter has been attracting rave reviews in the US since it opened there last month. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both won Golden Globes for their supporting roles; they and co-star Mark Wahlberg are strong contenders for Oscar nominations.
The film, which opens here on February 4, tells the true story of 'Irish' Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer from a tough neighbourhood of Lowell, Massachusetts, who overcame numerous obstacles to become a WBU world champion.
Among those obstacles are his hard-headed mother Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), and his crack-addicted elder brother Dicky (Christian Bale). Dicky was once a promising fighter who went toe-to-toe with the great Sugar Ray Leonard, but his chaotic lifestyle causes complications when he becomes Micky's trainer.
Mark Wahlberg apparently spent four years training daily at a gym in order to prepare himself physically for the role, and had the real Micky Ward and his brother Dicky come live with him so he could study their mannerisms and accents.
Christian Bale lost 30-odd pounds to play the nervy and frail-looking Dicky, and apparently stayed in character throughout the shoot.
All of which is very admirable, and The Fighter is an entertaining and well-made film. But to pretend that it does anything new with the genre would be misleading, because in many ways it's a very traditional boxing film.
Since its earliest days, the boxing movie has traded in a series of recurring stock characters. First there's the fighter himself, always a working class underdog who's plagued by personal problems and is generally dismissed by fight promoters and fans as a talentless journeyman. Then there's the trainer, usually a cynical and wise-cracking older man who spits a lot and tends to speak in grunted monosyllables.
There's always a woman, either a wife/girlfriend or mother, who wants her boy to quit before he loses his looks or his reason. And there's often a jealous brother, too: The Fighter's Dicky reminds one of other boxing movie characters, especially Joe Pesci's character in Raging Bull.
In fairness these clichés are probably an inevitable consequence of the nature of professional boxing. It's a vicious, gladiatorial business that attracts the marginalised and desperate, is prey to corruption and fixing and tends to take poor care of its veterans.
But the simple, brutal situation of two men battling it out in a ring has rich dramatic resonance, and the boxing genre has produced some memorable films.
Not many people now remember the rugged, hard-drinking character actor Wallace Beery, but he had the perfect kind of face for boxing films, and starred in an early classic, The Champ (1931). Directed by King Vidor, The Champ was an out-and-out melodrama. Beery (46) played a washed-up former world heavyweight boxing champion who lives in squalor with his young son. After he gambles away the last of their money, he decides to fight a young Mexican contender in order to give his boy a future. He wins too, before dying nobly in the last reel.
Beery won an Oscar and briefly resurrected his career, but the original should not be confused with a slushy 1979 remake starring Jon Voight.
Among his other talents, Errol Flynn was something of an amateur pugilist, and in his memoirs David Niven remembered Flynn and John Huston engaging in amiable bare knuckle fights at boring parties. Flynn delivered one of his better performances in Gentleman Jim (1942), playing the legendary Jim Corbett, a charming Irish-American who became world champion in the early days of professional boxing.
The recurring theme of the simple pugilist being corrupted by the vultures that surround him was expounded in Robert Rossen's stylish 1947 film noir, Body and Soul. John Garfield looked a little pretty for a fighter, but his portrayal of a gullible young man who takes up the sport against his mother's wishes earned him an Oscar nomination.
Robert Wise's excellent 1949 drama The Set-Up cast boxing in an even more unflattering light. Robert Ryan played Stoker Thompson, a 35-year-old has-been fighter whose manager has been taking bribes for dives from a mobster. But when Thompson finds out he refuses to play along and risks all by winning a fixed fight.
Kirk Douglas played the boxer as villain in the 1949 drama Champion. His Midge Kelly was a promising fighter who gets to the top by stepping on everyone he knows, and ends up famous but thoroughly miserable. The film was directed by Mark Robson, and Robson revisited the boxing genre in 1956 in an even more cynical film, The Harder They Fall. In his last film before his death, Humphrey Bogart was Eddie Willis, a hard-bitten sports reporter who's hired to publicise a talentless Argentinean boxer whose fights are being rigged for money.
Boxing pictures tend to be either gloomy tales of corruption or life-affirming melodramas, and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) belonged very much in the latter category. Based on the true story of legendary New York middleweight Rocky Graziano, Robert Wise's film starred Paul Newman as Rocky, a wild Brooklyn kid who gets into all sorts of trouble before discovering a talent for boxing while in the US Army.
If Somebody Up There Likes Me was life-affirming, boxing films don't come any more uplifting than Rocky (1976). Shot in just 28 days for under a million dollars by the then unknown Sylvester Stallone, Rocky was an underdog melodrama in the best traditions of The Champ. There've been five sequels to date, but the original film remains perhaps the most popular boxing picture of them all.
It's hardly the best, though: that honour would surely have to go to Raging Bull (1981). Most people remember the film for Robert De Niro's heroics in gaining 50 pounds to play an older, fatter Jake La Motta, but Martin Scorsese's decision to shoot his grim story in black and white and set his slow-motion boxing bouts to the strains of Guiseppe Verdi's operas was a stroke of genius.
Clint Eastwood made a worthy addition to the genre in 2004 with Million Dollar Baby, in which Hilary Swank plays a talented female boxer who persuades Eastwood's crusty old trainer to take her on. And Ron Howard's Cinderella Man (2005) was a moving re-telling of the true story of working class hero and world heavyweight champ Jim Braddock.
Good as they and indeed The Fighter are, however, Raging Bull remains the yardstick of excellence in the boxing genre and it's unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.
The Fighter opens on February 4 firstname.lastname@example.org