How many cases of a particular condition must be confirmed before it’s officially an epidemic? Because if things keep on going like this, it’s possible that there’ll be no Hollywood movie released in 2020 that isn’t either a comic book film or a boxing drama. This week, we get Jonathan Jakubowicz‘s “Hands of Stone” starring Edgar Ramirez and Robert de Niro — who is himself obviously the veteran of an all-time, stone-cold American classic about a once-great boxer’s desperate bid to regain former glory: “Grudge Match.”
Anyway, “Hands of Stone” comes hot on the heels of Antoine Fuqua‘s “Southpaw,” “Ryan Coogler‘s “Creed” and unforgettable touchpoint “Back in the Day” which stars Michael Madsen, Alec Baldwin and Danny Glover and no, us neither. And it anticipates by a few months the release of Ben Younger‘s “Bleed for This” which stars Miles Teller and premieres in Toronto, and is not to be confused with Philippe Falardeau‘s “The Bleeder,” which stars Liev Schreiber and premieres in Venice. 2017 will then see the UK get in on the act with the release of Thomas Napper‘s “Jawbone,” starring Ian McShane and Ray Winstone, and then maybe the one we’re most excited for, Paddy Considine‘s sophomore directorial feature “Journeyman” in which he will also star. Oh, and there’ll be more in the pipeline as, hot off his Oscar nomination, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson signed on to direct real-life tragedy “A Man’s World” based on the story of closeted gay boxer Emile Griffith.
Of course there are many reasons, aside from the popularity of the sport, why the boxing drama has remained such a staple of Hollywood cinema for so long (and it is largely English-language cinema that seems to have the most abiding fixation). It can be relatively inexpensive to stage, allowing boxing films to come in at lower budgets than, oh say, polo movies. It almost invariably provides a physically impressive, transformational role for its male lead. And the simplicity of a sport that, when shorn down to essentials is basically two guys punching each other till a bell rings, lends itself to all sorts texture and allegory, providing a simple framework on which to hang a meaty morality play, a nihilist noir, or a good, old-fashioned underdog story. Here are the 25 films we think go the distance.
25. “Resurrecting The Champ” (2007)
General critical consensus on Rod Lurie‘s film about the redemption of a boxing writer is barely favorable, and it had a tough time during its short theatrical run despite the two stars attached in the lead roles. But we’re propping it up to a standard that some may view with a raised eyebrow for a couple of reasons. Josh Hartnett plays sports journalist Erik Kernan whose pieces are being buried by his editor at The Denver Post for being too boring. One night he meets “The Champ,” (Samuel L. Jackson), a homeless man who was once third in the world in heavyweight boxing, Bob Satterfield. Or, so he says. For those who haven’t seen it, now’s a good time to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled. Once Kernan’s article is published, the publicity it draws (including a cartoonish Teri Hatcher as a Showtime executive) reveals that The Champ is a lesser-known boxer impersonating Satterfield. “Resurrecting The Champ” is a boxing film unlike many in that it focuses on the journalism of boxing more than the bouting, and the failures of the sport who spilled no ink. Those who successfully dodge all the sappy father-son messages, also get to enjoy one the greatest recent Sam Jackson performances outside of a Quentin Tarantino film. To use The Champ’s lingo, the movie’s about a 70%, and a little too harshly beaten by the times.
24. “The Champ” (1931)/”The Champ” (1979)
A bit of a cheat here with the double entry, but anyone who’s seen both versions of this preternaturally effective tearjerker can attest that while the story is the same, the films’ strengths and weaknesses lie in such complementary patterns that taken together, they maybe represent the perfect amalgam. King Vidor‘s 1931 film stars Wallace Beery as the dad, and to a modern eye the fight sequences are pretty stolid and unengaging, and the film lacks in dynamism. However little Jackie Cooper, who was Beery’s onscreen partner for several films, delivers a quite brilliant child performance here, and the chemistry with his doomed-but-decent boxer Dad is palpable. The 1979 remake, which is the one more of us are familiar with, has some excellent boxing and fight scenes that Jon Voight sells convincingly, but Franco Zeffirelli‘s mawkish direction and the event-horizon cute juvenile performance from Ricky Schroeder might very well set your teeth on edge (the “No, Champ, no!” climax may give you the weird sensation of trying to roll your eyes while also using them for crying out of). So neither version is anything close to perfect but both have, buried somewhere in the DNA of this trite, sentimentalized story, the power to reduce grown men and women to rubble, even against their better judgement. And that is something that is fairly unique to the boxing movie genre which can present similar, or in some cases literally the same, stories to us time and again, and still see them work their mysterious juju.
23. “Gentleman Jim” (1942)
Like every sport, boxing has evolved in tremendous fashion throughout the 20th century, but now that we’re well in the 21st, that bygone era of the earliest years of boxing as sport in the late 1890s has all but completely dispersed from culture and memory. Perhaps it’s our nostalgia, then, that beckoned to us to include Raoul Walsh‘s “Gentleman Jim,” an old-fashioned Hollywood relic starring one of the most then-talked about movie stars in the title role: the enigmatic Errol Flynn. Based on James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett’s autobiography, this is about a time when boxing was illegal, and world champions – like John L. Sullivan, wonderfully portrayed in the film by Ward Bond – were those mustachioed burly Irishmen who comically circled their fists and ended all their sentences with “see?” Corbett brought sophistication to the sport, and introduced calculated science over brute strength. Though the character got a Hollywood polish for the screen version and much of the dialogue feels lumbered, today we watch “Gentleman Jim” for one of Flynn’s greatest performances (a personal favorite of his), Walsh’s wistful handling of the honor found in the sport, and an impossibly touching final scene that still brings tears to the eye, over 70 years later.
22. “Champion” (1949)
Possibly the most anti-boxing boxing movie ever made, Mark Robson‘s “Champion” is also weird, grim and somewhat dated, but Kirk Douglas‘s Oscar-nominated turn and some bruising action sequences justify its now-classic status. Douglas plays Midge Kelly, the “go-getting boxer” who goes from low-down hothead to two-time title-holder, but if it wasn’t for some acting pyrotechnics on the part of the young, energetic actor, Kelly would be an utterly unlikable antihero: he abandons his wife, screws over his brother and promoter, is cocky, schemes against people who are scheming him, commits adultery, and so on. Its tone is wildly uneven, as it swings from film-noir character piece to romantic comedy to kitchen-sink drama and back again – either Robson didn’t have the skill to properly direct all of these different approaches, or he had no idea that they didn’t really belong in the same film, but the result is all over the map. However that also means it’s refreshingly unpredictable, especially given how formulaic the boxing movie would become, and the boxing matches are exceptionally lively. Probably the most impressive scene involves Kelly being jumped by gambling sharks, leading to an 8-on-1 impromptu cage-match, complete with cheap shots and chairs-on-backs action. 1949 would see the unjustly neglected “The Set-Up,” (see below) do practically everything better, but “Champion” gets its place in history because, like in boxing, sometimes the undeserving contender lands a sucker punch and wins the title.
21. “The Boxer” (1997)
In Jim Sheridan’s “The Boxer,” we get the dark and impossibly gloomy side of the Irish Dream, where the land of opportunity becomes the ropy confines of a boxing ring. It’s the third collaboration between Sheridan and heavyweight champion of the acting world Daniel Day-Lewis, dangling at the shoelaces of “My Left Foot” and “In The Name Of The Father,” and thanks to this, it’s more often than not swept under the mat. Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) is released from prison after a 14-year sentence, and tries to assimilate back into the everyday by managing a boxing gym. Most of the story is focused on his relationship with Maggie (Emily Watson), and the air is denser with instability caused by British-Irish relations than sweat from competitive bouts. But there are enough gritty boxing scenes and one hell of an understated Day-Lewis performance to make the film eligible for our purposes. It’s not for nothing that UFC presenter and boxing aficionado Joe Rogan calls Day-Lewis’ performance the best he’s ever seen of an actor playing a boxer. 1997 was the year of “Titanic,” which practically made every other movie released in its vicinity an underdog, but for its realism and a particularly gut-punching politicized metaphor of boxing, the years should’ve been kinder to this one.