Total Recall

Boxing Movies for Boxing Day

To celebrate both the Dec. 26 holiday and the release of Grudge Match, we present a list of some of cinema's most memorable pugilists.

by | December 26, 2013 | Comments

Boxing Movies

It’s December 26, otherwise known as Boxing Day — and although the holiday doesn’t actually have anything to do with two people stepping into a ring to beat the crap out of each other, with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro’s Grudge Match currently in theaters, we had to take it as a sign. Even if you don’t plan on watching Sly and Bob whale on one another this weekend, we’ve rounded up 14 other boxing-themed films worthy of your time. Grab those gloves and put up your dukes — it’s time for Total Recall!

Ali

67%

Will Smith trained for a year to prepare himself for the title role in Michael Mann’s Muhammad Ali biopic, both inside the ring and out, with a workload that included everything from live sparring to Islamic studies and time with a dialect coach. While Ali ultimately packed a somewhat disappointing punch at the box office, where its $87 million gross failed to earn back its budget, all that preparation paid off handsomely for Smith, who walked away with a Best Actor Oscar nomination — as well as glowing reviews from critics like Jay Carr of the Boston Globe, who wrote, “Smith makes contact with enough of Ali’s swagger, sweetness, wit, and pride to convince us that justice is being done to the boxing champion.”

The Champ

83%

The 1979 remake starring Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder holds a soft spot in the hearts of filmgoers of a certain age, but for sheer tearjerking power, you can’t beat the original The Champ, featuring Wallace Beery (who won an Oscar for his work) as a washed-up boxer who slumps from one cheap fight to the next with his young son (Jackie Cooper) in tow — at least until his upwardly mobile ex-wife (Irene Rich) steps in and convinces him the kid will be better off with her. The boy’s having none of it, though, and he runs away to find his dad — just in time for a truly heart-wrenching (albeit rather maudlin) final act. Calling the movie an “example of clever acting saving the day,” the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall credited director King Vidor with working “in a restrained fashion, always permitting the performances of Master Cooper and Mr. Beery to hold up a sequence that might have been banal and trite without them.”

Champion

92%

Long before Rocky Balboa regained the Eye of the Tiger through judiciously edited beach-jogging montages with Apollo Creed, Kirk Douglas brought the story of a boxer’s rise and fall to thrilling life in 1949’s Champion. Starring as the unfortunately named fighter Midge Kelly, Douglas takes the audience on a journey from rags to riches, with plenty of punches thrown along the way. Basically the old adage of “be careful of you wish for” writ large, Champion wonders how a person is supposed to keep track of his true friends — and hold onto himself at a fundamental level — after being overtaken by success. The answers aren’t always easy, but they are, as Nell Minow wrote for Yahoo! Movies, “Brilliant, searing, heartbreaking.”

Cinderella Man

80%

Director Ron Howard picked up three Oscar nominations for his hard-hitting look at the tale of Depression-era heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, who was dubbed “The Cinderella Man” even before he overcame 10-to-1 odds and defeated Max Baer to claim his title. Surrounded by a top-shelf cast that included Renee Zellweger, Paddy Considine, and Paul Giamatti, Russell Crowe embodied both the raw physicality and the inner struggle of a fighter who risked his health, and his marriage, to stay in the ring. Though Cinderella Man didn’t connect with audiences as solidly as Howard and Crowe’s work in A Beautiful Mind, it did break the $100 million mark — and it earned the admiration of most critics, including Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, who wrote, “How exceptional a film actor is Russell Crowe? So exceptional that in Cinderella Man, he makes a good boxing movie feel at times like a great, big picture.”

Fat City

100%

Offering a beautifully unadorned look at a washed-up boxer (Stacy Keach) who takes a young contender (Jeff Bridges) under his wing, John Huston’s Fat City brought Leonard Gardner’s novel to the screen with power and grace (as well as a screenplay adapted by Gardner himself). A babyfaced 23 years old and only one film removed from The Last Picture Show, Bridges displayed an uncommon grace and calm grasp of his craft in his scenes with Keach, and Huston — who ended the movie on the sort of unsettling note we see far too rarely today — made the most of his young star’s emerging gifts. “The movie is crafty work and very much a show,” wrote J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, adding, “in one way or another, right down to the percussively abrupt open ending, it’s all about being hammered.”

The Fighter

91%

It took an awful lot of struggle to get it to the screen, but like the pugnacious boxers in its real-life story’s spotlight, David O. Russell’s The Fighter persevered — and although it looked very different from the days when it was supposed to be a Mark Wahlberg/Matt Damon production (or the brief period when Brad Pitt was supposed to step in for Damon), that didn’t put a dent in the number of accolades the movie ultimately acquired. Starring Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward and Christian Bale as his brother/trainer Dicky, The Fighter earned more than $120 million at the box office and picked up seven Academy Award nominations, winning two — including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Bale. “Wahlberg gives a deceptively low-key performance as the movie’s still point,” wrote Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times, “perfectly setting off the crackling fuse that is Bale’s Dicky, a grinning strutter who knows he’s screwed up but can’t quite say goodbye to the limelight.”

The Harder They Fall

100%

These days, we’re fairly accustomed to thinking of boxing as a dirty racket, but 1956’s The Harder They Fall came out during the era when it was still widely thought of as the “sweet science” — and one that was still enjoyed by a big, passionate audience that had to be taken aback by the sight of Humphrey Bogart (in his final screen appearance) as a slumming journalist who takes a job as a PR flack for an unscrupulous promoter (Rod Steiger) with a young, ripe-for-fleecing fighter (Mike Lane) in his stable. Unflinching in its portrayal of boxing’s seedy underbelly — right up to director Mark Robson’s decision to cast real-life fighters Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Baer, and Joe Greb — Harder continues to resonate with critics like Joseph Cracknell of the Apollo Guide, who wrote, “Even in a film where everyone seems to end up a loser, Humphrey Bogart finishes his career with a solid Bogie performance.”

The Hurricane

83%

There probably really isn’t much that can make a person feel better about serving almost 20 years of prison time for a triple homicide you didn’t commit, but on the list of things that might come sort of close, having your life turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington must rank near the top. Washington toplined 1999’s The Hurricane as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the real-life boxer whose long incarceration for three 1966 murders inspired public protests from a number of activists (including Bob Dylan, who wrote the 1975 song “Hurricane” about Rubin). Of course, this being Hollywood, a few liberties were taken with the details of Rubin’s life, which understandably angered some of the people depicted in the film (such as boxer Joey Giardello, who sued The Hurricane‘s producers for libel) as well as a noticeable number of critics (among them the New Yorker’s David Denby, who called it “False, evasive, and factually thin — a liberal fairytale”). No matter how they felt about the film, though, pretty much everyone agreed that Washington was terrific in it — a position exemplified by the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Margaret A. McGurk, who said, “As the center of the drama, Mr. Washington more than fills the screen; he very nearly sets it on fire.”

Million Dollar Baby

91%

A dozen years after they collaborated for the critical and commercial smash Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman reunited for Million Dollar Baby, another pensive drama that — although it took place in the present day rather than their previous collaboration’s Old West setting — offered another brutally revisionist take on commonly accepted institutions and practices. The subject, in this case, was boxing, examined through the tale of a young female fighter (Hilary Swank) who browbeats a veteran trainer (Eastwood) into taking her on against his better judgment (with some help from his assistant, played by Freeman — who also narrates the movie, of course). Things get rough in the ring, but in theaters, critics were overwhelmingly kind; as Joe Morgenstern wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “It is thoughtful, unfashionable, measured, mostly honest, sometimes clumsy or remote, often exciting, occasionally moving and eventually surprising. It’s correct.”

Raging Bull

98%

A viscerally violent, ruthlessly gripping, adrenaline-soaked depiction of one man’s self-destructive spiral, Raging Bull represents what can happen when a star believes in a project enough to fight for it — and when a director believes he’s down to his last chance at redemption, not only as a filmmaker but as a human being. Robert De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for his mesmerizing turn as real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, and it’s easy to understand why — even without the 70 pounds he packed on to play LaMotta’s post-retirement years, his commitment to the role is impossible to miss. Just as impressive is Martin Scorsese’s work, which earned him a Best Director nomination (and the film a Best Picture nomination); this is a movie that presents a protagonist who is essentially unlikeable and wholly relatable in equal measure, and dares the viewer to look away. As Amy Taubin wrote for the Village Voice, “The most obvious basis for the film’s claim to greatness lies in Scorsese’s devastating critique of the very codes of masculinity that shaped him as a filmmaker, and in Robert De Niro’s performance, through which that critique is made flesh.”

Requiem for a Heavyweight

90%

Boxing is a harsh sport and an even crueler profession — especially once you’ve fought so long that your body can’t take another bout, as memorably depicted in 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. Starring Anthony Quinn as retiring fighter Mountain Rivera, Mickey Rooney as Mountain’s trainer and friend, and Jackie Gleason as his dirty manager, Maish Rennick, Requiem takes a tough look at a boxer’s career options once he steps out of the ring — and puts the audience through the wringer right along with Mountain when he’s put in a terrible spot thanks to an unfortunate decision made by Maish. It all adds up, in the words of the New York Times’ A.H. Weiler, to “A serious incisive drama that pulls no punches in its low-keyed exposure of its pitiable has been hero and the sleazy, harried sidekicks who share his sweat-stained and blood-stained world.”

Rocky

92%

As the old saying goes, you’re supposed to write what you know. And although Sylvester Stallone wasn’t a boxer when he wrote the screenplay for Rocky, he was certainly a dreamer, and he understood the painful pursuit of a dream in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Like Rocky, Stallone needed a big break, and he got it with this critically lauded box office smash, which earned ten Oscar nominations, winning three, and launched what would become arguably the signature franchise of his career. Though the Rocky movies would eventually lose sight of the qualities that made the original special, this film stands as one of the decade’s classic dramas — and it deserved the praise of Roger Ebert, who wrote, “A description of it would sound like a cliche from beginning to end. But Rocky isn’t about a story, it’s about a hero. And it’s inhabited with supreme confidence by a star.”

Somebody Up There Likes Me

82%

Paul Newman got his first big break with this 1956 boxing picture, based on the life and career of the legendary pugilist Rocky Graziano. The part of Rocky Barbella originally belonged to James Dean, but after Dean’s death in a 1955 car accident, the filmmakers turned to Newman at the last minute — and the result was this minor sports classic, which jump-started Newman’s career (as well as the careers of Steve McQueen, Robert Loggia, and Frank Campanella, all of whom make their screen debuts here). He clearly hadn’t yet mastered the powerfully minimalistic style that would become his trademark — and the film is perhaps, as Filmcritic’s Christopher Null argues, “straightforward and simplistic” — but in the morally conflicted boxer from the wrong side of the tracks, Newman found a character whose shades of gray would color the rest of his career.

When We Were Kings

98%

Leon Gast had to fight for more than 20 years to release his footage of the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but the wait ultimately paid off: Finally let loose in theaters in 1996, When We Were Kings inspired a wave of critical adulation that culminated in a Best Documentary Feature win at the Academy Awards. More than just a boxing documentary, Kings frames Ali and Foreman’s showdown against a sociopolitical backdrop; as Edward Guthmann put it for the San Francisco Chronicle, “By portraying the young Ali as hero — and moving beyond the media image of the poetry-spouting peacock — Gast reminds us that Ali didn’t follow the path of earlier black superstars or earn his stripes by conforming to white society’s expectations.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Grudge Match.

Finally, here’s a clip from the 1897 heavyweight championship bout between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, one of the earliest boxing matches on film:

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