Monday 16 September 2019

Punching above their weight - a history of boxing movies

Rocky sequel ‘Creed II’ is a worthy addition to an often hackneyed genre that has nonetheless managed to produce some memorable classics

Ringside: Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan reprise their roles in Creed 2
Ringside: Sylvester Stallone and Michael B Jordan reprise their roles in Creed 2
De Niro in Raging Bull
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

A kid, a wily old trainer and a battered punch bag: that essentially sums up the plot of nine out of 10 boxing pictures, but in cinema, simple formulas are often the best, and this one has proved remarkably durable. Especially for Sylvester Stallone, the most successful proponent of the genre in movie history, who has to date starred in eight movies built around the dim but indomitable pugilist Rocky Balboa.

Stallone won three Oscars and became an overnight sensation with Rocky, his irresistible tale of a journeyman fighter who doesn't know when to throw in the towel. The highest grossing film of 1976, it spawned four sequels through the late 1970s and 1980s which cunningly spun out the franchise by dragging in contemporary concerns like the Cold War.

In 2006, Sly revived his punch-drunk hero in Rocky Balboa, a decent drama in which the now widowed Rocky is tempted back into the ring. But that film wasn't a patch on Ryan Coogler's 2016 sequel Creed, which rediscovered the verve and energy of the original film by creating a brand new underdog. Michael B Jordan was Adonis 'Donnie' Creed, the illegitimate son of Balboa's old foe and friend Apollo Creed, who discovers meaning in his life after Rocky agrees to train him for an unlikely title fight.

In Creed II, which opened here yesterday, Donnie has become world champion when an ominous challenge emerges from the Ukraine. Viktor Drago, a terrifying lump of a heavyweight, has been felling opponents like cut trees, and now demands his shot at the title. And as he happens to be the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Soviet beast who killed his dad Apollo in the ring, Donnie feels honour-bound to accept.

Creed II is a perfect example of a good boxing picture: it's predictable, even formulaic, but is so well made and downright entertaining that you don't really care. Boxing movies have always been cliché-ridden, and populated by comforting stereotypes: the impetuous young fighter from the wrong side of the tracks, or the punch-drunk, declining journeyman, the cynical coach, the oily promoter, the despairing, anguished wife who wants her man to quit before he loses his looks, or his wits.

In fairness, these clichés are an inevitable consequence of the nature of professional boxing. It's a vicious, gladiatorial business that tends to attract the marginalised and desperate, is prey to corruption and tends to take poor care of its fallen 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.

Boxing stories were popular in Hollywood from the very start, though in the silent era they were sometimes played for comic effect. In City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin's Tramp used the referee as cover during a farcically balletic bout. Boxing was good for laughs, even better for melodrama, as King Vidor proved in his 1931 picture The Champ. Hard-drinking character actor Wallace Beery had a face for boxing, and played 'Champ' Purcell, a washed-up former world heavyweight 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, before dying nobly in the last reel. Beery won an Oscar and briefly resurrected his career, and a remake starring Jon Voight was released in 1979.

Boxing lends itself to such life-affirming melodramas, and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) was another heart-warming classic of this kind. Based on the true story of legendary New York middleweight Rocky Graziano, Robert Wise's film starred Paul Newman as Rocky, a tearaway kid from Brooklyn who discovers a talent for boxing while reluctantly doing his national service in the US army.

Graziano triumphs in the end, but most fighters do not, and from the 1940s on, a darker and more interesting strain of boxing picture emerged, gloomy morality tales mired in corruption and venality. The recurring theme of the simple pugilist being corrupted by the vultures that surround him was memorably explored in Robert Rossen's stylish 1947 film noir, Body and Soul. John Garfield played a gullible young man who takes up the sport against his mother's wishes and gets in with a bad crowd.

Robert Wise's excellent 1949 drama The Set-Up cast boxing in an even more unflattering light. Robert Ryan was Stoker Thompson, a 35-year-old fading 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 boxer in the 1949 drama Champion. Midge Kelly 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 reporter who's hired to publicise a talentless Argentinian boxer whose fights are being rigged. Originally an award-winning TV drama written by The Twilight Zone's creator Rod Serling, the powerful 1962 film Requiem for a Heavyweight starred Anthony Quinn as Louis '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 already has brain damage but is forced to fight on, and is publicly humiliated by the 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 insisted and the rest is history.

Among the films Rocky beat to win the Best Picture Academy Award in 1977 was Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and four years later Scorsese released arguably the greatest boxing picture of them all, Raging Bull (see panel).

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 David O Russell brought humour 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 trained hard to seem right in the part, but Christian Bale stole the show playing Ward's volatile fruit bat of a brother Dicky Eklund. The Fighter seemed fresh and frank and funny, but owed more than a little to the work of Scorsese, who can lay claim to having created the genre's most enduring masterpiece.


Five knockouts

De Niro in Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980)

Scorsese's masterpiece tells the story of 1940s middleweight Jake LaMotta, a talented boxer consumed by his demons and played by Robert De Niro.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

Anthony Quinn is at his best in Ralph Nelson's film about a punch-drunk fighter who ends up in debt to some pretty unpleasant people.

The Great White Hope (1970)

Loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson, Martin Ritt's film starred James Earl Jones as a gifted black fighter whose affair with a white woman will be his undoing.

Fat City (1972)

John Huston's drama grimly demonstrates how the sport of boxing treats its also-rans. Stacy Keach plays a washed-up fighter who attempts a comeback.

When We Were Kings (1996)

Leon Gast's absorbing documentary explored the 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout between George Foreman and the irrepressibly loquacious Muhammad Ali.

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