Tag Archives: boxing movies

Lords of the Ring

In the Company of Kings

by George Wolf

Resting somewhere between personal memoir and an episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30, In the Company of Kings is buoyed by undeniable layers of passion and gratitude.

In a brisk 70 minutes, director Steve Read and producer/narrator Robert Douglas reveal the inspiration they have taken from legends of boxing, while putting the spotlight on 8 boxers with very personal stories of struggle, sacrifice and success.

Drawn by the lure of the fight game, Douglas tells of his move from Liverpool to a hardscrabble section of North Philadelphia. Feeling a kinship with those desperate to make it out, Douglas waxes poetic about his love for the men who found their ticket in the ring, with some impressively framed camerawork dotting the gritty landscape.

From legends such as Larry Holmes, Bernard Hopkins and Ernie Shavers to current prospect Tyhler Williams, the film delivers first person accounts of life in the fight game, sparked by intimate details of poverty, racism, hustle, crime and punishment.

Unsurprisingly, Muhammed Ali is the biggest obsession here. But though the filmmakers pay homage to the Greatest through time spent with promoters Don King and Bob Arum and manager Gene Kilroy, these segments only feed the scattershot nature of the film’s focus.

The passion of Read and Douglas is never in doubt, and while that passion sometimes threatens to run the film off the rails, it’s also provides the glue that keeps the film’s heart intact.

By that quick final bell, In the Company of Kings makes clear that it just wants to say ‘thank you’ for the fight, and the courage. More casual sports fans may not be moved, but those with a love of boxing—especially during the 70s and 80s—will take a few hits to the feels.

Flower Power

In Full Bloom

by Hope Madden

Where many filmmakers find brutality in the to-the-death mindset of contests of will and might, filmmakers Reza Ghassemi and Adam VillaSenor find beauty. Delicate, flowering beauty.

Every living thing is at the height of its natural power for a brief moment. After that, it’s just a rush toward death. In Full Bloom circles that one moment.

American Clint Sullivan (Tyler Wood) and Japanese Masahiro (Yusuke Ogasawara) are those peak specimens. Both boxers will meet in post WWII Tokyo with the world watching.

The fight means a lot of things to a lot of people. To Japan, it’s an opportunity to reclaim some pride. To the US, it reestablishes dominance. To Sullivan’s team, it’s about the money. But to the two men in the ring, the moment will simply determine which of them is in full bloom.

It’s a heavy metaphor, but Ghassemi and VillaSenor back it up with style to spare. The film is saturated with bruised masculinity, heightened emotion and existential panic. And like a lot of films of this nature, (Gavin O’Connor’s 2011 Warrior, in particular), the struggle at the core of In Full Bloom concerns animal strength versus disciplined grace.

Ghessemi and VillaSenor set things moving in the moments leading up to the fight. As Sullivan waxes brute philosophy with his sketchy manager and angling wife, the film flashes back to Masahiro’s training.

Here we leave the confines of the boxing arena in favor of gorgeous, snowy landscapes where the fighter has tracked down warrior legend Tetsuro (Hiroyuki Watanabe, bringing much needed humor to the film), hoping to learn from the master.

The filmmakers don’t introduce many new ideas here. They simply strip away any breathing room, leaving only scene upon scene of hyperbolic emotion. Their film takes on a surreal quality that’s visually lovely, often intriguing, and sometimes borderline silly.

Wood delivers a stiff performance that is nearly the film’s undoing. A posturing Eastwood type, Wood rarely generates enough depth of character to carry the symbolism and metaphor swimming around him.

As with any bout film, the fight choreography is the deal breaker. Here, taking a cue from Raging Bull and Cinderella Man, the action itself takes on a dreamy quality that supports the film’s overall themes and imagery.

It’s a solid if flawed poem, an ode to the apex predator.

Family Feud

Creed II

by George Wolf

In the history of elephants and rooms, Creed II earns a special mention for its spit take-worthy moment when a boxing commentator finally deadpans,”It’s all a bit Shakespearean, isn’t it?”

Why yes, it is, in fact more than a bit.

It’s a daddy issues melodrama on steroids, one that hits every crowd pleasing note and works every manipulative angle it can pull from the long and storied history of this franchise. And true to the fighters at the heart of these films, the new Creed will not be denied.

Let’s be honest, the first Creed rebooted the Rocky warhorse so effectively, it was a surprising left hook to nearly everyone who hadn’t seen writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan’s stunning work in Fruitvale Station.

But that was pre-Black Panther, and though Coogler is missed for this sequel, promising indie director Steven Caple, Jr. displays similar instincts for slaying sentimentality with smaller moments of conviction.

And lots of great fighting.

Much of that needed conviction comes from Jordan, who returns with fervor as Adonis Creed, the newly-crowned heavyweight champ who gets an instant challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of…who else but Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’s father Apollo when Rocky wouldn’t throw the damn towel.

Drago the Younger is huge and strong (one trainer rightly dubs him “a balanced breakfast”), leading Rocky (Stallone), still haunted by Apollo’s death, to advise against the fight.

Adonis also has Bianca (Tessa Thompson, splendid as always and sharing great chemistry with Jordan) and their positive pregnancy test to consider, along with a truckload of pride and unfinished business.

Stallone, who of course started all this with the original Rocky screenplay, steps back in as co-writer, and in many ways Creed 2 becomes just as much Rocky’s story as Adonis’s. But it feels right, thanks to another award-worthy turn from Sly and a character arc that rings true enough to consider moving on without him next time.

Caple, Jr. delivers some of the same grit that made his The Land such a hardscrabble, underseen winner, while also bringing a fresh eye to the boxing choreography. Yes, each round is as unrealistically action-filled as most boxing films, but what do you want, a Pacquiao/Mayweather tap-dance?

No, you want to applaud the good guy knocking the evil Russian’s mouthpiece out while you cheer like it’s Cold War Reunion Night at TGI Fridays, and Caple, Jr. makes sure you will.

It doesn’t hurt when that original Rocky music kicks in, and it’s again weaved into a vital soundtrack subtly enough to not overstay any welcomes.

But beyond all the button pushing, sentiment and nostalgia are characters, and this all falls like a tomato can in the fist round if we don’t have reason to care about them. We still do.

Gotta fly now.


Yo, Chucky!


by George Wolf

I remember the sweaty, battered face staring at me from the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1975, a face that had taken plenty of punches, and was lining up to take more at the hands of The Greatest.

It was face of Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, who was about to fight Muhammed Ali in the old Richfield Coliseum near Cleveland – then a sparkling new jewel – for the heavyweight championship and inspire a young Sly Stallone to write a screenplay about “The Italian Stallion.”

Chuck finally gets the story of the real-life Rocky on the screen, utilizing painful honesty, subtle humor and a compelling performance from Liev Schreiber to craft a touching look at hard lessons learned.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie) gets the 70s period details just right, and surrounds Wepner’s shot at the title with cinematic versions of the cliched boxer looking for his chance to be a contender, sharply illustrating how much Wepner defined all that is celebrated about life in the ring.

As Wepner claws his way to the New Jersey heavyweight championship, he watches 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight and longs for respect, even as he continually takes his wife (a terrific Elizabeth Moss) and daughter for granted while following his love for “wine, women and song.”

Besting all expectations, Wepner’s plan to “wear (Ali) down with my face” lasted into the 15h and final round, and he became one of the few opponents to actually knock Ali to the canvas. His increased celebrity status, and the news that the Oscar-winning Rocky was based on his life, only fueled Wepner’s primal urges and accelerated a downward spiral that included drugs, divorce, and fighting live bears.

Schreiber is transformational, adopting the voice, gait and body control of a lumbering man with a good heart and great survival instincts, but a child-like self control that often betrayed him. Schreiber commands the screen without ever being showy, blending easily with an outstanding supporting cast that includes Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport and Morgan Spector (as Stallone).

Familiar in theme but illuminating with its intimacy, Chuck is a fascinating glimpse at life imitating art imitating life.


Punch Drunk


by Hope Madden

Hope is a tricky word in the hands of a writer. It is almost impossible not to assume the name Hope has been assigned a character for symbolic purposes. Certainly this can be done with finesse, but more often it’s as subtle as a punch in the face. (See what I did there?)

Such is the case with Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua’s by-the-numbers redemption tale about down-on-his-luck boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), who turns to a grizzled trainer played by Forest Whitaker to help him fight his way back to the top.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. Hope’s on top of the boxing world until tragedy strikes. His wife is killed, his daughter is taken into protective custody, he loses all his money and has to find the true boxer inside himself to reclaim his life. It is every boxing movie you have ever seen.

Sports films are perhaps the most cliché-ready of any – boxing films more than most. Some find a way to do the rags-to-riches (or riches-to-rags-to-riches) storyline well: The Fighter, Rocky. Even Gavin O’Connor‘s 2011 MMA film Warrior managed to embrace the well-worn path and still find new and interesting things to say. Much of that credit goes to a rock-solid cast including the great Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte (Oscar nominated for his role).

Southpaw certainly boasts an excellent performance in the battered and ripped form of Gyllenhaal. Following the greatest performance of his life in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal again delivers a deeply felt, sincere turn as Hope battles toward atonement.

The film opens with a bloody, manic Hope rushing directly toward the camera, his gnarled and dripping mug and howling mouth finally filling the entire screen. Fuqua – having proven an ability throughout his career to amp up otherwise familiar content with his particular flair with the camera – starts off promisingly.

Unfortunately, the filmmaker can’t deliver on that promise. All is well enough when the camera is on Gyllenhaal, who seems undeterred by the brashly formulaic story unfolding around him. His presence is almost alarming, and in his performance you see the intellectual, social, and emotional limitations this disgraced boxer has to battle.

It’s almost enough to overlook the brazenly derivative film around him.