With the exception of film, there is little that I love more than the art of boxing. I’m not a sports guy (at all), but when it comes to the sweet science of boxing, I am in complete awe. It’s a sport I’ve witnessed, practiced and cherished with equal levels of fascination. There’s something about the calculation that goes into the whole thing that I find unique and interesting.
There is, however, a catch to being such a fan of the sport: I am virtually unable to enjoy any boxing film that gets the boxing scenes wrong. One of the best, most recent examples of this is David O. Russell’s The Fighter. Good movie, horribly inauthentic boxing scenes. Micky Ward was such a unique, driven fighter, and the film portraying him in no way capitalized on that.
Oh well. Just keep in mind that for the purposes of this post, I am only focusing on the boxing. Here are the ones that got it right, pound for pound.
This is a bit of a cheat, because, quite frankly, the boxing in all the Rocky films is horrible and completely counterfeit. With all that in mind, it still does not take away from the baddassness of watching a 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone beat down (and get beat up) by an in-his-prime Antonio Tarver. Their final showdown is fun, brutal, and nostalgic in all the best ways. Sure, some serious boxing Hollywood liberties are being taken here (Lesson 1: If your glove touches the mat, then it’s considered a knockdown), but damn if it ain’t great to see The Rock give it one final go.
7. Cinderella Man
I’m far from the biggest fan of Ron Howard’s James Braddock biopic, but Russell Crowe’s obvious dedication makes for some pretty believable bouts. It’s a shame that Howard felt the need to drown out the fighting scenes in obnoxious sepia, and that his go-to effect is slow motion, the killer of all boxing scenes, but all in all, Howard and Co. did a fine job highlighting the ancient styles of Depression-era boxing.
6. The Boxer
Daniel Day-Lewis hardly has any boxing scenes to fully flex his commitment in The Boxer, but needless to say, his method acting shines through here in the best way possible. Really, The Boxer only contains one notable boxing sequence, and it is one of such unique humility and compassion, you’ll be damned to find two guys pounding on each other as moving as it is here. The Jim Sheridan/Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration is most often remembered for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, but The Boxer is a fine addition to the work these two men did together.
5. The Hurricane
Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane contains Denzel Washington’s best, most devoted performance (second only to Malcolm X, of course), which is made clear the second you see him step in the ring. At the time of shooting, Denzel was 44-years-old, but he looks as young as the real life character he’s portraying. This isn’t done with digital effects, mind you, but rather steadfast dedication from an actor at the top of his game.
Jewison made the ballsy decision to shoot all of the boxing scenes in gorgeous black a white (an ode to Raging Bull, as he points out in his commentary), and that, mixed with Christopher Young’s marvelous stringed music, and, of course, the actor himself, makes for some of the best boxing ever put on screen.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make specific mention of how flawlessly Denzel incorporates Rubin Hurricane Carter’s very specific style of fighting into his performance. Carter boxed like a karate kid, blocking punches with his forearms and bobbing and weaving infinitely more than any of his challengers. Breathtaking to watch on screen.
4. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s dark, moody, melodramatic work of art has several things going for it, namely its many scenes of authentic-as-all-hell boxing. With the exception of what happens at the end of the final match, there’s nothing that occurs inside the ring during Million Dollar Baby that doesn’t occur frequently inside the ring in real life. Popping the nose back into place, cheap shots when the ref isn’t looking – everything Eastwood captured is as real as it gets.
Two things to note. First, in typical Eastwood fashion, the boxing scenes were not rehearsed or storyboarded, they were improvised on the day they were shot. Two: I love the lengths at which Eastwood and Paul Haggis’ script go to explaining the art of boxing. Not many films tell you (accurately) how to hit a speed bag. Those lessons here help to make the film as credible as it is.
3. Raging Bull
We’re nearing the end and you may have noticed something: all of the films I’m highlighting are relatively new. There’s no The Harder They Fall, no Somebody Up There Likes Me, no Champion – and that’s for good reason. When you talk about the authenticity of boxing in film, there is before Raging Bull, and after Raging Bull. Before Martin Scorsese made his masterpiece, every boxing scene in every movie was utter crap. The actors never hit each other, the sound effects were seriously overblown… it just didn’t work. Then Scorsese came along and did two things that changed the game: he did whatever the hell he wanted, and he never left the ring.
The fighting scenes in Raging Bull are 100 percent style, which should in no way work. Scorsese implored slow motion, sped-up motion, far too much blood, and, hell, he even changed the damn size of the ring to fit whatever vision he had. But he did it without leaving the ring. I cannot think of a single film other than Raging Bull in which, during the boxing scenes, the camera never steps outside of the ring. Yes, once Jake La Motta and his brother Joey have their disastrous falling out, Scorsese cross-cuts Jake’s most brutal fight with Joey’s reaction watching it from home, but the point is that Raging Bull broke the rules and changed the game. It’s a film that will be remembered as long as there are films.
2. When We Were Kings
Leon Gast’s remarkable, Oscar-winning documentary chronicles the trials and tribulations behind the most famous boxing match of all time, The Rumble in the Jungle. Everyone from Spike Lee to Norman Mailer to George Plimpton are interviewed concerning Muhammad Ali’s revelatory knockout of George Foreman in Zaire.
What balls it takes to not only step in the ring with a bigger, stronger and more lethal fighter than you, but to actually let him beat the holy hell out of you for seven and a half rounds. Ali had guts, sure, but more importantly to this bout, he had brains. No one (including Ali’s trainer) knew what Ali was doing, but damn if the risk didn’t pay off. When We Were Kings is essential for anyone who enjoys films and/or loves boxing. If you’re a fan of both, you’ll be in heaven.
Funny that I find the narrative depiction of a fight to be more enthralling than the actual depiction of the same fight, but hey, sometimes art imitates life better than life itself. Look, I know Michael Mann’s biopic has its fair share of detractors, but I simply love everything about this film, and if we’re only focusing on the fighting, then it is a goddamn masterpiece.
Putting expert cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to the test in ways he hadn’t been before, the boxing in Ali is shot using a multitude of methods. Gorgeous widescreen, gritty handheld, sparsely (but effectively) implored slow motion – everything about the style of the boxing scenes here works. But that’s just the look, there’s certainly a lot more going on here, most notably Will Smith’s epic incarnation of one (if not the) most famous athletes of all time. Smith put on the pounds, he packed the attitude, and he nailed Ali’s unique style of fighting. Everything about his performance works.
While I love the many fight scenes in Ali, specific respect must be paid to Mann’s retelling of The Rumble in the Jungle, in which he practically shows the Ali/Foreman bout in real time. I’ve studied that real life fight. It’s something I’ve watched over and over and over (it can easily be found on YouTube, like here for instance), and watching the real fight back-to-back with Mann’s version of it is clear evidence of a guy doing his homework. Every punch, every sidestep, every grimaced face – Mann carried it through with accuracy, effect, and respect. For a boxing fan, there’s simply nothing better.