The tub-thumping is in high gear. You have only just begun to be regaled by the triumph of “The Fighter,” a movie about Micky Ward, dauntless journeyman pug. Also featured are his thoroughly gonzo family, the battered nooks of the poor city of Lowell, and Micky’s tender, seemingly hopeless aspirations that could only have had a fighting chance in the grim but eternal game of boxing.
There’s nothing new about a movie that makes boxing the instrument of a rags-to-riches redemption while depicting the utter decadence of the dodge along the way. But hereabout there should be special interest in “The Fighter” as it battles for Academy Award recognition in the weeks ahead.
For Micky Ward is a local boy. Lowell is one of our signature towns. Mark Wahlberg, a kid from our own tough turf who made it big in Hollywood, gives a stunning performance, emerging as a big winner. So, too, in a nice if quieter way does Bob Halloran, the WCVB (Ch. 5) sportscaster who served as a consultant for the production. Ward’s raucous movie-tale is partially based on Bob’s enterprising original work.
What makes boxing, a gory game that’s been fading for years, such ripe material for most of the best cinema about sport? Why is a business few follow let alone support so boffo at the movie box office? It has always been that way.
Sports Illustrated recently rated the 30 best boxing movies according to a hefty panel of distinguished experts in cinema, sport, and letters. Not to be out done, we offer our own somewhat shorter list, sans the panel.
12. “Gentleman Jim”: A stylized period piece more about the cultural whims of the Gay Nineties than boxing, per se. But Errol Flynn’s rendering of Gentleman Jim Corbett, the first great modern pugilist, is terrific. Under-rated as a craftsman, Flynn had no dearth of guts. He was still recovering from serious cardiac issues that forced him to sit out WWII when he made the movie. Yet he insisted on doing all the strenuous boxing scenes without help from a double. Superb character actor Ward Bond steals scenes in his portrayal of “the Great John L,” as in Mr. Sullivan, another gentleman from Boston, you may recall.
11 “Golden Boy”: More of a soap-opera than a sports tale, it was the first of the serious boxing flicks (1939), written by the estimable Clifford Odets. Broadway caliber cast featuring a very young William Holden with Barbara Stanwyck, Adolph Menjou, and Lee. J Cobb was superior. But Holden, starring as the pug, was a bit too “golden.”
10. “Rocky 1”: Won’t bore you with tales about how Sly Stallone produced a billion-dollar blockbuster on a shoestring budget. At best it’s a fairy tale charged with cheap racist undertones that were never properly recognized. Still, Rocky’s impact is undeniable. What Stallone won’t be excused for are his four increasingly junky and preposterous sequels, all of which nonetheless made much money, alas. The SI panel of experts disagrees. They rate four Rockys in their top 30. Wrong! We should be thankful the genre survived Sylvester Stallone.
9. “The Harder they Fall”: A tale written by Budd Schulberg, who really knew this game. The 1956 movie features a dying Humphrey Bogart in his last role as a weary sportswriter. Bogey plays it as if he’d lived it. Rod Steiger is customarily brilliant as the inevitable, rotten-to-the-core fight promoter. The story of a brutally exploited boxing freak from Argentina was probably inspired by the mis-adventures of the Italian Goliath, Primo Carnera, in the early ‘30’s.
8. “Cinderella Man” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (dead-even): Two film bios about total boxing opposites; Jim Braddock, a terrific fellow, and Rocky Graziano, a relative creep. These are more studies of human character than the sweet science but what they most have in common is masterful title-role performances. Russell Crowe superbly captures “Cinderella Man” Braddock’s decency while the young Paul Newman, at the top of his game, utterly defines the sociopathic Graziano. To me, they’re opposite sides of the same coin.
7. “Million Dollar Baby”: Which was, of course, Clint Eastwood’s award-sweeping epic of a couple of years ago that raised Hilary Swank to stardom and won an Oscar for the incomparable Morgan Freeman. The premise, about female boxers, is shaky and the tearful denouement is far-fetched. But it had impact, lots of it, with Mr. Eastwood at the very top of his game.
6. “Set-Up”: A gripping portrait of the sport’s fundamental depravity and corruption with a stunning performance by Robert Ryan, a great actor who never got his proper due. It’s been rightly called a film noir classic. May be the most realistic of them all.
5. “Body and Soul”: As in “Golden Boy,” the melodrama veers into soap opera. There’s also a touch of cliché in the plot line about hoods scheming to corrupt a good kid. But John Garfield, reeking of the scent and feel of the sidewalks of New York that he knew so well, is wonderful and very believable as the pug. It simply works!
4. “The Great White Hope”: James Earl Jones did not so much portray WWI-era heavyweight champ Jack Johnson as re-incarnate him. The performance is almost eerie in its greatness. Moreover, the story of the wild life and times of our entire history’s most controversial athlete and of the vile racism that fueled his fury ranks high among the most important sports stories ever told.
Mention should also be made here of Ken Burns documentary, “Unforgiveable Blackness,” which painstakingly chronicles the Johnson saga. Pound for pound (if you will forgive the pun) it may be Burns’s best work.
3. “The Champion”: I may be guilty of excessive sentiment here but this 1949 gem gets my vote as the most under-rated of the ultimate boxing movies. Ring Lardner’s wonderful short story traces the meteoric rise and epic fall of Midge Kelly. Lardner is said to have modeled his nasty anti-hero after the equally grim and tragic Stanley Ketchel, who was gunned down in the kitchen of a Michigan farm house at age 23. It’s a role savagely played by the young Kirk Douglas in a knockout of a performance. “The Champion” taps the raw essence of the sport and its many layers of brutality. And it still works!
2. “Requiem for a Heavyweight”: Originally a play by Rod Serling then brilliantly rendered in film by three fabulous performers who were never better in anything they ever did. Anthony Quinn as the faltering and illiterate Mountain Rivera, a human punching-bag. Jackie Gleason as his ruthless manager. Mickey Rooney as his tender-hearted trainer. The mix is matchless and the story heart-breaking.
1. “Raging Bull”: It was Martin Scorsese’s greatest film and Robert DeNiro’s greatest performance, thus a guaranteed masterpiece. It’s not just the best boxing movie but the best ever made about any sport. But then the material they had to work with was priceless. Not even Ring Lardner could have made up Jake LaMotta.
So where does ‘The Fighter’ fit into this perspective? The best I can suggest is, “not sure.” There are traces of brilliance, unmistakably. The style of the production -- more like a docudrama over the movie’s first half -- is arresting. The portrait of hardscrabble Lowell is unnerving. The emotional hell of Micky Ward’s extended family which is graphically portrayed, to put it mildly, is gripping. Above all, the performances -- especially by Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Melissa Leo, who tries to steal the show as their wacky cinematic momma -- are outstanding, all of which might be affirmed come awards nights.
Most noteworthy is Wahlberg’s monumental physical effort. He pounded himself into a level of conditioning and polished his boxing skills to a degree that makes him highly believable in the ring. It was a mighty commitment, comparable to DeNiro’s, although you needn’t be reminded there is only one DeNiro; or at least “was.”
Put it this way. It’s a complex and highly provocative film. Casual judgments won’t come easily. It will be received and pondered well, and deservedly so.