Friday 19 January 2018

Knockout: the boxing movies that floored us

One to beat: Robert De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.
One to beat: Robert De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull.

Paul Whitington

A revival of the Rocky franchise might seem an unlikely cause for celebration, but Creed, which opens here next Friday, just happens to be one of the best mainstream entertainments I've seen in a long while. Directed and co-written by rising film-maker Ryan Coogler, the movie rediscovers the verve and energy of the original 1976 Rocky by creating a brand new ethnically challenged underdog.

Michael B Jordan plays Adonis 'Donnie' Creed, the son of Rocky Balboa's friend and former nemesis Apollo Creed. Before he died in the ring at the hands of Soviet monster Ivan Drago in Rocky III, Apollo apparently got about a bit, and Adonis was the result of an extramarital affair. The boy becomes a troubled, angry kid after enduring a series of foster homes, but Apollo Creed's wealthy widow turns out to be a good sport, and adopts him.

But even though he excels at school and ends up in a well-paid financial job, Donnie inherits a love of boxing and sneaks off to Mexico at the weekends to appear in clandestine fights. He's pretty good too, and eventually quits his job and heads north-east to turn pro. Donnie chooses Philadelphia as a base, for a very good reason: it's the home town of his father's old rival Rocky Balboa, who now runs a restaurant and has nothing to do with boxing. But after much persuasion from young Master Creed, Balboa agrees to become his coach.

Creed tells its story with energy, style and heart, and the climactic fight between Donnie and an obnoxious English champion is extremely well done. Donnie Creed is a hero you can believe in, and Sylvester Stallone is so good as an older and wiser Rocky that he's being tipped for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

It's an entertaining and well-made film, but to claim that it does anything new with its chosen genre would be misleading, because in virtually all respects Creed is a very traditional boxing film, full of the usual stock characters and reassuring genre clichés.

Since its earliest days the boxing movie has traded in a series of recurring character types. First there's the fighter himself, who's never a smug champion or established fighter, always a working-class underdog who's plagued by personal problems and is usually dismissed by fight promoters and fans as a talentless journeyman. Then there's the trainer, generally a cynical and wise-cracking older man who spits a lot and speaks 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, like Christian Bale's crack-smoking has-been Dicky in The Fighter (2010), or Joe Pesci's character in Raging Bull (1980).

In fairness, these clichés are 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 warriors. 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 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, then 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, Champ 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 memorably expounded in Robert Rossen's stylish 1947 film noir, Body and Soul. John Garfield looked a little pretty for a fighter, but his earnest 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 fading 35-year-old fighter whose manager has been taking bribes for dives from a gangster. But when Thompson finds out, he refuses to play along, and risks all by winning a fixed fight.

Kirk Douglas played the villain boxer in the 1949 drama Champion. Midge Kelly is 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 movie, The Harder They Fall. In his last film, Humphrey Bogart was Eddie Willis, a hard-bitten sports reporter who's hired to publicise a talentless Argentinian boxer whose fights are being rigged for money.

Boxing pictures tend to be either gloomy tales of corruption and venality, 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 reluctantly doing his national service in the US Army.

If Somebody Up There Likes Me was life-affirming, Requiem for a Heavyweight was pretty much the opposite. Originally an award-winning TV drama written by Rod Serling, the powerful 1962 film version starred Anthony Quinn as Luis 'Mountain' Riviera, a punch-drunk pugilist who's staggering through the twilight of his career when he's handed a beating by a talented young contender (played by Muhammad Ali) and ends up in debt to a cabal of crooked bookies.

He's already sustained brain damage but is forced to fight on, and is publicly humiliated by the cruel and cynical business that created him in the first place.

Rocky, on the other hand, didn't have a cynical bone in its body. 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. Originally the studio wanted someone else to play Rocky Balboa, but Stallone begged to differ and the rest is history.

Rocky was a huge hit, and won three Oscars, including Best Picture, an unlikely award when you consider that the competition that year included Network, Taxi Driver and All the President's Men. Creed is the sixth sequel to date if you can believe it, but it seems highly likely there are going to be at least a few more.

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, with tragic consequences. And Ron Howard's Cinderella Man (2005) was a moving retelling of the true story of working-class hero and world heavyweight champ Jim Braddock.

David O Russell brought humour and even a touch of absurdity to the genre in his 2010 picture The Fighter, which was based on the true story of Irish-American welterweight boxer Micky Ward. Mark Wahlberg apparently spent four years training to look and seem right in the part, but good though he was, Christian Bale stole the show playing Ward's volatile half-brother Dicky Eklund. The Fighter seemed fresh and frank and funny, but owed more than a little to the work of Martin Scorsese.

And good as these recent additions to the genre are, Scorsese's Raging Bull (see below) remains the yardstick of excellence in the boxing genre, and is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.

A boxing masterpiece

Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull was nominated for eight Oscars at the 1980 Academy Awards, and won Robert De Niro the Best Actor award. But it very nearly never happened, and it was De Niro who persuaded Scorsese to take on the project after reading a book on the life of 1940s Italian-American middleweight Jake LaMotta. Scorsese hated boxing and wanted nothing to do with it at first, but after nearly dying from a drug overdose, he took to the project as a way of rehabilitating himself.

Raised in poverty in the Bronx, LaMotta fought a series of epic bouts with middleweight legend Sugar Ray Robinson, but his terrible temper subsequently destroyed his life. De Niro famously toured Italy eating everything in sight to gain 60 pounds so he could play the older, fatter LaMotta, but prior to that had trained as a boxer and even appeared in a couple of amateur bouts. His portrayal of the furious fighter was remarkable, and newcomer Joe Pesci was excellent as his equally violent brother. Scorsese filmed the boxing bouts in slow motion black and white, and set them to the strains of Guiseppe Verdi, the gorgeous music contrasting eerily with the bloody carnage in the ring. The result was unforgettable.

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