Wednesday 21 February 2018

Knock-out

With the country currently grip-ped by Euro fever, and the London Olym-pics on the way, it got me thinking about what are the best sporting pictures ever made.

You'd think soccer would have been a great inspiration for moviemakers, but not so, perhaps partly because Americans have remained so profoundly disinterested in the sport.

You have to go back to the late 1930s for a decent thriller built around football, with The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, and even the better footie movies like Escape to Victory have been embarrassing in parts.

Not so with boxing, a sport that seems to lend itself perfectly to the melodrama of motion pictures. I could have easily filled the list with great boxing pictures, but have restricted myself to two.

I've also included a couple of outstanding documentaries, but otherwise have tried to mix it up a bit by including different sports that happen to have inspired outstanding films.

Great sports films use competition as a means of exploring character, but must also find a way of believably depicting the sport in question without making it look ridiculous.

What's the best of them? Raging Bull in my opinion, a movie that examines the terrible price that sporting success can entail. But Robert Rossen's The Hustler and Darren Aranofsky's more recent The Wrestler explore similar ground most impressively.

The Hustler (1961)

Based on a 1959 novel by Walter Tevis, Robert Rossen's gritty and groundbreaking 1961 sports film lifted the lid on the seedy world of professional pool. Paul Newman starred as 'Fast Eddie' Felson, a smalltime pool hustler from California who travels to New York City to challenge the legendary 'Minnesota Fats' (Jackie Gleason).

When he loses badly in a high-stakes game, Fast Eddie gets so obsessed with beating Fats that he becomes a danger to himself and everyone around him.

Piper Laurie played Eddie's unfortunate girlfriend, and Newman was exceptional as the hungry young man who's prepared to lose everything in order to win.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris grew up playing rugby, and was perfectly cast in this memorable Lindsay Anderson sports film. Among the best of the so-called kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s, This Sporting Life starred Harris as Frank Machin, a Yorkshire coal miner who catches the eye of a local rugby league coach during an altercation in a nightclub.

Hired to play as a loose forward for the team, he excels thanks to his innate aggression and physical strength. But Frank's new success makes him arrogant, and his treatment of a local widow he uses for sex exposes his shallowness and brutishness as a human being.

Seen as too depressing by many, the film flopped on its release but is now considered a masterpiece.

Hoosiers (1986)

Americans aren't afraid to ramp up the sentiment in sports pictures, and Hoosiers is perhaps the most moving and feel-good sporting film of all. Gene Hackman is Norman Dale, a 1950s high school teacher who arrives in the small town of Hickory, Indiana, to take on the post of basketball coach.

Norman has a temper, and was sacked from his last job for hitting a student. Hickory's basketball team hasn't won a thing in ages, and Norman's negative, cautious tactics initially make him unpopular in the town.

But gradually he wins his players and the public over, and the film culminates in a magnificently nail-biting championship final. Dennis Hopper was great fun as a drunk parent, but this is Hackman's film.

Field of Dreams (1989)

Baseball has inspired lots of interesting pictures, from Eight Men Out to the recent Moneyball, but this 1989 comic fantasy has a charm all of its own. Kevin Costner's Ray Kinsella is a struggling Midwestern farmer who decides to turn his cornfield into a baseball park after hearing a voice that whispers the cryptic message, "if you build it, he will come".

Ray builds the field but at first nothing happens. But one night he sees a man in an old-fashioned baseball outfit emerge from the corn, and something extraordinary starts to happen.

There are echoes of Frank Capra in the storyline, Costner excelling in a role that might have been played by James Stewart or Gary Cooper.

Tin Cup (1996)

Most golf pictures are terrible, but this 1996 comedy is full of good writing and old-fashioned charm. Kevin Costner plays Roy 'Tin Cup' McAvoy, a former golf prodigy whose reckless temperament destroyed his promise.

Now he lives in a trailer and owns a ratty driving range, but when his old enemy David Simms (Don Johnson) comes back to town, Tin Cup is provoked into making a run for the US Open.

When We Were Kings (1996)

Leon Gast spent 22 years editing and honing his documentary based around the Ali/Foreman world heavyweight title fight in Zaire in 1974. In fact, he spent so long on it that most people assumed it would never come out, but the result was definitely worth waiting for.

Using footage from the so-called 'Rumble in the Jungle', together with songs performed by the likes of James Brown and BB King, Gast creates a compelling picture of a very specific time and place.

At the centre of it all is Ali, in his prime and full of wit and mischievousness.

Seabiscuit (2003)

When Gary Ross's film based on the exploits of legendary American thoroughbred Seabiscuit came out in 2003, it was criticised by some for its excessive sentiment. And while the film does pile on the emotion with a trowel, it's hard not to be moved.

Considered too small and unmanageable, Seabiscuit was a 1930s thoroughbred who'd been consigned to the scrapheap by the time he was spotted by millionaire Charles S Howard (Jeff Bridges). Together with a canny trainer (Chris Cooper) and a spirited jockey called Red (Tobey Maguire) -- who's blind in one eye -- they nurture the rebellious horse until he's ready to take on the world.

Brilliantly paced and boasting some magnificent action sequences, Seabiscuit is probably the best horseracing picture ever made.

The Wrestler (2009)

Is pro wrestling a sport? I'm not sure, but this superb Darren Aronofsky drama memorably examines the fate of the ageing athlete and dramatically revived the fortunes of Mickey Rourke.

He is Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a professional wrestler who used to be a big shot back in the 1980s but now lives in a trailer park and wrestles for money at the weekends.

What could have been a sentimental hard-luck story is raised above the banal by Aronofsky's gritty direction and Rourke's truly remarkable performance.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Indo Review

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment