Tag Archives: Ali

Mapping The Legacy Of Boxing On Celluloid With 10 Boxing Films Picks

7 Aug
Published in WBUR’s ARTery

Paul Newman in

Paul Newman in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” (Courtesy)

The recent release of “Southpaw,” the new movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the ring rat of the title, again floats the paradigm of the American Dream realized in the toughest of all venues. Largely due to the primal, violent and intimate nature of pugilism, boxing has always been a storied staple of film throughout history.

“Southpaw” tries to achieve a post of solemnity and seriousness by playing against the archetype but in execution, it’s so heavily riddled with cliched jabs it never even flashes the mettle to reach the heights of any of the narratives it aches to be. One can understand the allure to Gyllenhaal, an actor who regularly seeks the challenge of off-the-beaten-path roles (take “Brokeback Mountain” or last year’s turn as a career-minded sociopath in “Nightcrawler”), as many an Oscar has been won by stepping in the ring (Robert De Niro and Hilary Swank to name two).

By definition, the sport demands blood and sweat, and total immersion by any thespian hoping to sell the gritty gut-pounding reality of the ring. It’s been a well-noted undertaking — the extremes actors go to in conditioning and preparation — and something De Niro took deeply to heart (going from a toned and ripped fighter to flabby nightclub host by tossing on 50 pounds) in immersing himself into the volatile persona of middleweight Jake LaMotta for Martin Scorsese’s heralded bio-pic, “Raging Bull” (1980). It’s one of the great fight films, if not the greatest, and while the bold choices by Scorsese — shooting in smoky black-and-white and a framed narrative arc — provided grounding and context, it was De Niro’s indelible turn, employing extreme method acting to soulfully get at the turbulent embodiment of LaMotta, that ensured the film of its mantle spot as a timeless American classic.

In looking back at the legacy of boxing on celluloid, three other Oscar winning films would likely hang at the top of anyone’s top 10, the most obvious of which, besides “Bull,” being “Rocky,” the 1976 Best Picture fairy tale and Cineplex-sweeping crowned pleaser which also capped an incredible real-life underdog story for screenwriter/actor Sylvester Stallone who had toiled thespian Palookaville before, and more recent hits about the gritty downside to ring life, “The Fighter” and Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.”

Below, arranged in alphabetical order, is a list composed of some other great pugilist profiles with a conscience lean to include the eclectic and the classic. Five receiving serious consideration but not making the bell: “Cinderella Man” (2005), “The Set-Up”(1947), “The Quiet Man” (1952), “The Boxer” (1997) and “The Great White Hope” (1970).  Continue reading

When We Were Kings

18 Mar

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings captures Muhammad Ali at his greatest.

Leon Gast’s feisty documentary chronicles the events surrounding the 1974 boxing extravaganza between Muhammad Ali and George Forman in Zaire. Financed by dictator President Mobutu with $10 million from his country’s reserves, the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” cast Ali as the underdog for the first time in nearly a decade. He had been inactive in professional boxing for several years after being arrested and then stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing to serve in Vietnam. At age 32 he was making this his comeback fight, but no one, not even longtime adherent Howard Cosell, gave Ali a chance against the then taciturn Forman, who was considered unbeatable after mowing down the likes of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. The poetic and prophetic Ali saw things differently: “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I kick Foreman’s behind.”

It took more than 20 years for Gast to bring his material to the big screen. Originally he was chartered to film the African cultural festival that was to be an appetizer while Forman and Ali went about their training. Then Forman cut himself sparring and the bout was delayed six weeks. The adjournment gave Gast the opportunity to shoot the boxers, but later his two Liberian financiers were murdered during a military coup, leaving no funds to finish the film until 1995, when director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) stepped in as a producer and editor.

Gast brought back more than 450 hours of footage and Hackford shot additional interviews to provide the historical retrospective. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who were at ringside to record the affair, elaborate on the mood of the time and provide sprightly insights into Ali’s psyche. Also on hand is the always opinionated Spike Lee, who pops up from time to time to interject his two cents. Ali and Forman appear on screen only in their prime. It would have been interesting to contrast the sleek Forman of ’74 with the preset portly Midas Muffler spokesperson, but to have shown Ali, now afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, would have been unfair and inappropriate.

And it’s Ali’s charismatic presence that makes When We Were Kings so appealing. He gravitates to the camera naturally; love him or hate him, there’s no denying his legacy. Hackford and Gast chisel the hours of celluloid into a compelling and comprehensive result (which gained them an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary), but at times they flirt with the notion of a grandiose social statement that never materializes. Gast’s real-life Rocky is a crowd pleaser that works best when the man who “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee” is dancing and prancing. The potent musical performances by B.B. King and James Brown are an added pleasure, and it’s an obscene amusement to watch Don King squirm into bed with Zaire’s dictatorship in order to launch his dubious career.

— Tom Meek