A cursory check of the Internet quickly turns up a ring-full of listings for Top 10 Boxing Films, most of which are as predictable as the fate of a Rocky opponent.
Virtually all start with The Professional, The Harder They Fall, and Fat City and end with Rocky, Million-Dollar Baby, and Raging Bull. The four films in-between may vary slightly, leaning either toward noir (The Set-Up), the maudlin (The Champ), or the politically correct (Hurricane) – rarely do they even consider the inspiring.
I love the Rocky films – yes, all of them, even Rocky V – because when I walk out of the theater or pop one out of the DVD, I feel great – I feel . . . inspired! Despite the predictability, I am always carried away from the mundane and made to feel, whatever my problems are, I can punch my way through. Okay, okay, so the feeling is ridiculous. I don’t care. I crave the effect like an inspiration junkie.
Million Dollar Baby is a great film – one of my all-time favorites – but it is less about boxing and more about the moral dilemma faced by characters dealing with tragic consequences. It was an amazing short story (from the collection Rope Burns by F. X, Toole) and an amazing film. It made you think – something most films, let alone boxing films, don’t want you to do. It inspired, but in a different way than the blatantly feel-good Rocky films.
For me, Raging Bull is an overrated boxing movie – overshadowed by DeNiro’s foul-mouthed performance. I appreciated the acting, but I came away ultimately depressed – not the effect I want from my favorite genre of film.
For me a boxing film doesn’t have to always end with a Rockyesque flair, but there needs to be an ultimate triumph. The Professional and Fat City are good films, but are complete downers in their attempt to show the fight game in a realistic light. Who wants realistic? Not me . . . I go to the movies to be entertained.
So, while I appreciate the movies on most top ten boxing films lists, I want to go beyond those usual pugilists and take a look at a top ten list of boxing films that ‘coulda been’ contenders . . . boxing flicks that entertain and inspire in the same way the Rocky series does . . .
Let’s be clear – After thirty-five years “on the job,” I’ve never seen a cop movie or television series that comes anywhere near real life. Doctors of my acquaintance start to hyperventilate at the mere mention of an episode of House or ER. Things aren’t any different with boxing films.
The films on my list are not going to please or satisfy boxing purists – but that’s not their reason for being. As long as I can ‘suspend my disbelief’ over the fight scenes, if they are choreographed well, and look cool . . . I’m happy.
Also, since I don’t want to have to argue with myself, the following films are listed by release date rather than personal preference.
BISH’S ALTERNATE TOP TEN BOXING FILMS
1. KID GALAHAD – 1962
ELVIS PRESLEY / GIG YOUNG / LOLA ALBRIGHT / CHARLES BRONSON
In what is often rated as one of his best films, immortal heartthrob Elvis Presley stars as Walter Gulick, an ex-G.I. who returns to his rustic hometown in upstate New York looking to work as an auto mechanic.
Circumstances cause Walter to intercede on a lady's behalf, decking one of the top fighters in shady promoter Willy Grogan’s stable. Grogan, knowing talent when he sees it, ropes the ambitions, but naïve, Walter into taking a shot in a legitimate ring. With his loyal trainer, Lew Nyack, at his side, the iron-jawed, anvil-fisted Elvis quickly becomes the top-drawing champion "Kid Galahad."
When the mob (inevitably) tries to muscle in on the action, the cool-headed fighter is forced to pull no punches in the ultimate bout to protect his honor and his dreams.
For this role, Presley was tutored in the arts of pugilism by former world junior welterweight champ Mushy Callahan, who appeared in the film. The reigning welterweight champion Orlando De La Fuente also appeared in the film as Ramon "Sugar Boy" Romero.
Elvis’ voice gives the romantic soundtrack a kick, and his performance as a fighter is pretty good. Yes, it’s an Elvis film, and, yes, it’s sappy, but it’s also fun. A knockout hit for the entire family.
2. HARD TIMES – 1975
CHARLES BRONSON / JAMES COBURN / JILL IRELAND /STROTHER MARTIN
Hard Times was the perfect vehicle for the craggy-faced Charles Bronson, here paired up with his Magnificent Seven co-star James Coburn, in Walter Hill’s directorial debut and first fistic masterpiece.
Bronson inhabits the character of Chaney like a second skin, playing the taciturn, ageing (Bronson was fifty-four at the time of filming), 1930's depression bareknuckle boxer as a man literally fighting to make ends meet.
Coburn is Speed, the fast-talking wheeler-dealer manager with gambling issues. And Strother Martin is pitch perfect as the cutman, Poe, a direct descendant of Edgar Allan.
1930s New Orleans is as bleak and harsh as the depression itself. Bronson knows his body will betray him soon, but until then, he figures to let his fists do the talking – and they speak very loudly.
Bronson is one of my cinematic heroes. The Magnificent Seven, Mr. Majestic, The Mechanic, Death Wish, and many others … Hard Times tops them all.
3. THE CONTENDER – 1979
MARC SINGER / MOSES GUNN / KATHERINE CANNON
Originally a five-part miniseries, The Contender was also made available as a pared-down feature film.
Better known as The Beastmaster and for his role in the television show V: The Series, Marc Singer is perfectly cast as Johnny Captor – an amateur boxer from Coos Bay, Oregon, with Olympic aspirations.
When his dad commits suicide, Johnny decides to forego his college studies and amateur status in order to support his mom and brother by boxing professionally.
Moses Gunn costars as Captor's trainer George Beifus, who vicariously relives his own glory days in the ring through Johnny. Katherine Cannon is the obligatory girl friend who hates boxing and wants Johnny to quit.
Guided by Beifus – a former prizefighter who believes Johnny will be the next "great white hope" – the series follows Johnny as he struggles to become a world champion.
The Contender ran on the CBS TV in 1980. Hard to find, but worth tracking down.
4. STREETS OF GOLD – 1986
KLAUS MARIA BRANDAUER / ADRIAN PASDAR / WESLEY SNIPES
This little gem about redemption and vindication still resonates with me. It is an excellent portrayal of the underdog going for glory.
The fight scenes are more realistic than most, which doesn’t give them quite the pop of other more dramatic boxing movie fight scenes, but they still work because the viewer is aware of the realism being sought.
Brandauer is Alek, an immigrant from the Soviet Union. A talented boxer in his day, he was kept off the Soviet Olympic team because he was a Jew. Once a national hero, he is now a dishwasher in the Russian immigrant conclave of Brighton Beach in the Bronx, he is angry and depressed.
Walking the streets one night Alek sees street fighting Roland (Snipes) in a brawl. Afterward, Alek gives Roland an unwanted boxing lesson. This is seen by Timothy Boyle (Pasdar) who later seeks out Alek to train him.
A feud develops between Roland and Boyle, which is only partially resolved when Alek agrees to train them both.
And what are they fighting for? A spot on the American team set to take on a Russian boxing squad.
Okay, you can see the final fight being set up even as you read this. It doesn’t matter. The complications leading toward vindication for the fighters and redemption for their trainer all drop comfortably into place, but you know you’re going to be there when the final punch is thrown and somebody hits the canvas.
5. THE POWER OF ONE – 1992
STEPHEN DORFF / MORGAN FREEMAN
From the director of Rocky and The Karate Kid, comes an almost unheard of movie based on a truly inspirational book by Bryce Courtney.
Seen through the prism of Apartheid, The Power of One uses boxing (and some astounding African scenery) as a journey for the human spirit, following one young man's perilous quest to unite men from all races.
The themes of the film have their political detractors (the ‘great white hope’ saves the indigenous peoples), but I wasn’t concerned with the politics. I was concerned and involved with the story of P. K., an orphan outsider in Africa – even among white South Africans because of his English birthright – who uses his fists to rise above incredible abuse. Along the way he unites an entire country and honors the man (Morgan Freeman) who trained him.
See the movie if you can find it, but put the book at the top of your must read list.
6. GIRLFIGHT – 2000
MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ / SANTIAGO DOUGLAS
A smoldering, Brando channeling, Michelle Rodriguez had her breakout role as Diana Guzman, a troubled teen who gets control of her aggression by training to become a boxer. She, of course, does this in spite of the skepticism of her abusive father and the prospective trainers in the male-dominated sport.
First-time director/writer Karyn Kusama earns her chops through the compelling unfolding of events as Diane, a scowling lightning rod for sudden violence, discovers a sense of personal grace in boxing. The discipline demanded in the ring inevitably transfers into Diane’s daily life as she fights back against her difficult circumstances.
This is Rodriguez’ film right from the start. She is absolutely believable as a female boxer, in a time before women were recognized as legitimate contenders in the sport.
Rodriguez’s commanding presence makes even the Rocky-like implausibility of the film’s climatic battle work as Rodriquez/Diana is thrown into the ring against a male opponent with whom she is romantically entangled.
Girlfight is straightforward and familiar, but it was clearly made with a sense of passion and pride in the uncharted territory it represented for women at the time. Girlfight is engaging and even touching.
7. UNDISPUTED – 2002
WESLEY SNIPES / VING RHAMES / PETER FALK
After Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was sent to prison for rape, this film became inevitable.
A high-concept movie pitch if there ever was one: The heavyweight champion of the world gets sent to prison for rape (how close to the Tyson case could they get) where he squares off against the man who ‘coulda been a contender.’
Directed by action maven Walter Hill, Undisputed is a suspenseful boxing drama with great action sequences and well defined characters. The film plays far better than the exploitive plotline on which it is based.
Hill’s self-proclaimed love of boxing is constantly in evidence as Monroe (Snipes) faces down James Iceman Chambers (Rhames) in a boxing match to determine who is the best, while an elderly mobster (Falk) pulls the strings to control a warden who doesn’t want the final match to take place.
Scenery chewing is rampant, but so it should be – this is over the top, mano-a-mano, last man standing fisticuffs of the first order.
Undisputed didn’t score a knockout at the box office, but it became a big enough cult hit to spawn two sequels.
And here is the beautiful and surprising final punch: Both Undisputed II: Last Man Standing and Undisputed III: Redemption are both worth watching for fight movie fans.
8. BLACK CLOUD – 2004
EDDIE SPEARS / RUSSELL MEANS / JULIA JONES
“The Will Of A Warrior. The Heart Of A Champion.” With a tag line like that, you know I’m going to be in the movie theater opening night.
Written by Ricky Schroder (yes, that Ricky Schroder, the kid from The Champ all grown up), Black Cloud, is an inspirational story about a young Navajo, Native American boxer, who overcomes personal challenges as he comes to terms with his heritage, while fighting his way for a spot on the US Olympic boxing team.
Black Cloud (Eddie Spears) is the name of the young Navajo man, who must take a journey of personal growth (is there any other kind?) to prepare himself for a chance at boxing in the Olympics.
There is a lot of culture clashing as Black Cloud lives up to his name before understanding his personal silver lining. By that time he’s in the finals of a tournament , squaring off against Rocket Ray Tracy, the number one ranked Light Heavyweight fighter who is planning on turning pro after the tournament.
A small film with limited distribution, worth checking out via Netflix or other DVD outlet.
9. CINDERELLA MAN – 2005
RUSSELL CROWE / RENÉE ZELLWEGER / PAUL GIAMATTI
This story of James Braddock, a supposedly washed up boxer who came back to become a champion and an inspiration in the 1930s, is just as inspiring today.
While quite appropriate, I think the title stopped the film from reaching a wider audience – being called a Cinderella Man in the 1930s had a whole lot different connotation than it does today.
While Charles Bronson’s fictional Hard Times character was beating on the Great Depression with his bare knuckles, real life common-man hero, James J. Braddock – a.k.a. the Cinderella Man – was using his gloved fists to become one of the most surprising sports legends in history.
The impoverished ex-prizefighter was seemingly as broken-down, beaten-up and out-of-luck as much of the rest of the American populace who had hit rock bottom. His career appeared to be finished, he was unable to pay the bills, the only thing that mattered to him – his family – was in danger, and he was even forced to go on Public Relief.
This was before the entitlement generation of today. Rightly or wrongly, for a man like Jim Braddock, going on public assistance (unemployment) was akin to losing his manhood.
But deep inside, Jim Braddock never relinquished his determination. Driven by love, honor and an incredible dose of grit, he willed an impossible dream to come true.
In a last-chance bid to help his family, Braddock returned to the ring. No one thought he had a shot. However Braddock, fueled by something beyond mere competition, kept winning.
Suddenly, the ordinary working man became the mythic athlete ... The real 99% rose up to support him. Not only did he not let them down in the fight of his life, but he didn’t go to Disneyland afterward – instead, he went back to the public assistance office and paid back every cent ‘loaned’ to him.
Crowe gives an outstanding, restrained performance in the film. He is believable both as Braddock and as a caring family man torn by his conscious and what he sees as a man’s role in society.
This one should have you cheering. I certainly was.
10. WARRIOR – 2011
JOEL EDGERTON /TOM HARDY/ NICK NOLTE
I hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth already. Get over it! Times change.
People are screaming, “But Warrior isn’t a boxing film, it’s a MMA (mixed martial arts) film!”
To that I say, “Bunk!”
Warrior is every bit as much a boxing film as Rocky. Just because the fighters have a ground game as well as a stand-up, doesn’t mean a thing – the set-up and pay-off is the same.
That said, being a boxing snob, I wasn’t much of a MMA fan (I think the words, “nothing more than alley fighting,” may have crossed my lips, and I couldn’t have been more wrong) until I saw this film and followed it up by reading Sam Sheridan’s excellent non-fiction fight travelogue, A Fighter’s Heart.
I now understand much more about the sport and, while some of it is still just alley fighting, I can see how difficult it is at the higher levels.
Warrior is the tale of two estranged brothers. One is a brooding loner, a Marine back from Iraq. The other is a family man, a high school teacher struggling to make ends meet. Both hate their alcoholic father (Nick Nolte), with good reason, even though he is attempting to make amends.
Both brothers are fighters. Both have reasons for attempting a comeback. Both find different unconnected ways to qualify for the biggest MMA tournament ever. And, of course, both start from different ends of the tournament chart, leading (inevitably) to their face-off in the finals.
Cliché? Yes. Predictable? Yes? Did I love every second of it? Absolutely! Well acted, well written, and amazingly filmed. One of my favorite films of 2011. It should be out on video December 20th. See it!
There you have it – my choices for an Alternate Top 10 Boxing Films list, which avoids the easy and common choices of most Top 10 Boxing Films picks. With a little effort, most can be tracked down on DVD and will provide solid entertainment with a punch.